The Revolving Door, Pentagon Edition

Congratulations to Bryan Bender and the Boston Globe for an excellent investigative story on the now-prevalent pattern of flag-rank military officers going to work for defense contractors as soon as they retire.

The story illustrates the pattern I discussed several weeks ago when Peter Orszag, a few months out of a Cabinet-level role with the Obama administration's economic team, took a top-level job with Citibank, which of course owed its survival to federal intervention. I said this was an instance of "structural corruption" in public life that had become so taken for granted that DC insiders considered it beneath mention or notice. (The Washington Post did not run any newspaper item about the move.*)


This graphic, at left, from Bender's story illustrates the everyone-knows-it, few-discuss-it parallel in the defense world. Twenty years ago, fewer than half of retired three- or four-star generals went to work for firms that directly depended on Defense Department business. And back then, in the early 90s, the "revolving door" problem was hardly unknown. (Ten years before that, it was so familiar that I could allude to it as a recognized problem, in my book 'National Defense.' Twenty years before that Dwight Eisenhower had given his famous warning about the "military industrial complex.") Now, around 80% do.

So a problem that's been recognized for at least half a century seems to have become worse than ever -- and yet it's not discussed at all by politicians and rarely in the press. I think this has something to do with the distortions of the "narrow sliver of the population" era of the American military. As SecDef Gates and countless others have pointed out, the whole American nation is in no sense "at war," but the minority who serve (again and again) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere most definitely have been, for years. Some background sense of unease or guilt may make it harder for politicians to do more than compete in saying that they "support the troops."

In any case, please read Bender's story. This is all-out, "special-report" coverage from a newspaper in the best sense: doing a thorough reporting job to direct attention to a real issue. Let's hope it has legs.
* Until this past week, the Post had not devoted a single newspaper item to the Orszag- Citigroup story. They've now run one paragraph in the paper: judge for yourself what it says about how permanent Washington treats this "news." You can click on the link above, or check it out here. In the Post's Style section, Orszag is recognized as runner-up (to Elizabeth Edwards) as the "Reliable Source Person of the Year":

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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