Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listens to testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2017.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., listens to testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2017. (James McCann/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON – Four of the Pentagon’s top lawyers were grilled Wednesday by senators over concerns about how often the Defense Department is allowing former employees to work for foreign governments, and whether that endangers national security.

“A former Navy SEAL earned $258,000 a year as a special operations adviser for Saudi Arabia. A [former] Air Force colonel received $300,000 a year to work for a Russian-owned satellite company,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “They are purchasing favors, influence and a good name for themselves in Washington, whether that’s in America’s national security interests or not.”

Warren’s comment was part of a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel hearing on public integrity and whether existing anti-corruption laws are sufficient.

The committee noted a recent Washington Post investigation that found the Defense Department is approving 95% of requests from retired military members or civilian officials to work for foreign governments. Some of the former defense officials are going to work at companies in other countries and some of the Pentagon’s approvals allow them to go to countries with questionable human rights records.

Warren, the chairwoman of the committee’s subpanel on personnel, said the report shows an “ugly underbelly” at the Pentagon.

“[Some of these] countries have human rights abuses, and I think, ‘How is this good for the United States of America?’” she said.

The Pentagon and State Department conduct background and security checks on all applicants before giving the approvals, but there’s no way to monitor their activities once they go to work in other countries, the Post investigation noted.

“The standard is — would approving the employment be [harmful] to the national security interests of the United States,” Navy General Counsel John Coffee said.

Coffee also said the Navy does not consider whether a former military official going to work for a foreign government improves the national security of the United States.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the top Republican on the subpanel, also challenged whether former American military officials should be permitted to work for other governments – or even companies with strong ties to governments, such as Chinese mega-retailer Alibaba.

“You shouldn’t be able to do that,” he said.

Another ethics concern raised by senators is former military officials going to work for large defense contractors and aiding them in obtaining big Pentagon contracts.

The military lawyers told senators they have seen some applicants fail to receive Pentagon approval for foreign work when the prospect presented a clear threat.

“An applicant was denied in part because of a counter-intelligence diligence that had been done,” Coffey said. “And [officials] felt that it would be adverse to the national security if it were approved.”

“There have been denials for people with derogatory information in their files that would reflect negatively on the United States, and also make them susceptible to foreign influence,” said Carrie Ricci, general counsel for the Army. “The vast majority of Army personnel who have been approved have not been general officers. They have been maintainers who have been hired by these countries to maintain [U.S.] equipment.”

Peter Beshar, general counsel for the Air Force, told senators that the service overhauled its protocol for approving foreign employment in 2020. The Air Force created a review board and established a set of questions for approving foreign employment. He also said every approval must be reapproved every three years.

“I just still am troubled by the 95% approval rate. There is just something odd about that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who applauded the Pentagon for agreeing to further study the issue of ethics in the department. That study also will look at the impact of ethics regulations on military recruiting.

“I believe there is always room for improvement,” said Caroline Krass, general counsel for the Department of Defense. She said each of the military branches will conduct a 90-day assessment of how they review and approve foreign employment.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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