The Broken Pentagon: Obama’s Secretary of USAF to Sit on Textron’s Board

Trump specifically said he wouldn’t allow this, but it seems like that promise has been quietly dropped.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


Secretary of Air Force Deborah Lee James, who officially retired from the role on January 11th, 2017, will now sit on the board of directors of one of the Pentagon's biggest vendors, Textron. Her final parting words to the Air Force were “I will never ever cease being a member of the Air Force family... I will always remain an advocate for Airmen and the Air Force.” Considering that her new job is to help return profits to Textron stockholders, that statement is dubious to say the least. Overall this news is just another reminder of why the Department of Defense is broken and how the system only invites corruption and controversy.

This is not to say Deborah Lee James is a bad person; she did a good job as Secretary of Air Force. Her straight talk about major issues was refreshing, and she wasn't afraid to admit the flying service's big mistakes. It is also hard to hate on her for doing something that has legal precedent, is personally lucrative, and keeps her in a very powerful position after leaving government. Don't hate the player, hate the game, as it were. 

In fact, James's uniformed counterpart for much of her time as Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, took a similar job with Northrop Grumman just months after "retiring." And that's just the problem: this type of "revolving door" between the Defense Department and the businesses it calls on for weapons and other products and services is an acceptable practice in the government's eyes on virtually all levels. Meanwhile, the fact that a Pentagon big-wig can be pushing to spend billions on a weapon system one day as a government official, and then working for the company that makes that same weapon system the next, is deeply troubling in so many ways.  

Both James and Welsh are now sitting on boards of some of the largest vendors they called on on behalf of the USAF while in office., AP

Let's just take the USAF's light attack aircraft fly-off this summer—an exercise that could lead the USAF to buy hundreds of aircraft capable of the mission. The advent of this fly-off came while James was Secretary of Air Force. As of now two of the three aircraft that will partake in this potentially high-stakes competition—the AT-6C Coyote and the Air-Land Scorpion—are products of (you guessed it!) Textron. 

The company has a huge portfolio, which includes Bell helicopters, Cessna Aircraft, and Beechcraft, not to mention strong divisions that build land and maritime systems, munitions and subsystems of all types. The company also owns multiple service providers, like the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC). Under James, the USAF began exploring the use of contractors in the adversary support role on a far deeper level than in the past—precisely the same types of services ATAC provides. 

From Textron's official press release:

Textron Inc. (NYSE:TXT) announced that Deborah Lee James has been elected to the company's Board of Directors, effective July 1, 2017. James recently retired as the 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force, a position she had held since 2013. Ms. James has 30 years of homeland and national security experience in the federal government and the private sector.

"We are extremely fortunate and honored to welcome the Honorable Deborah James to our Board," said Textron Chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly. "Deborah’s deep expertise in national security, government procurement, strategic planning, cybersecurity, logistics and innovation, garnered from her leadership positions at the U.S. Air Force and private industry, will greatly benefit Textron,” Donnelly added.

As Secretary of the Air Force, Ms. James oversaw the Air Force's annual budget of more than $139 billion. She led the Air Force in reaching key milestones in the next generation fighter (F-35) program and the refueling aircraft program (KC-46), as well as in launching important modernization programs, including a new combat rescue helicopter, long-range strategic bomber and trainer aircraft. She also ordered the development of a comprehensive cyber campaign plan and directed the overhaul of the Air Force’s logistics organization and processes.

Prior to her role as Secretary of the Air Force, James held various executive positions during an 11-year tenure at SAIC, Inc., a provider of services and solutions in the areas of defense, health, energy, infrastructure, ISR and cybersecurity to agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the intelligence community, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), foreign governments and other customers. She most recently served as Sector President, Technical and Engineering of SAIC’s Government Solutions Group, a position she held from February through December of 2013.

I would fill "extremely fortunate" if I were Textron, too! They basically bought the most powerful, relevant, and timely civilian official they could, and now all of James's knowledge and influence will be working for the them and their shareholders.  

What's interesting is that Trump specifically ran on ending this practice, stating:

“I will impose a five-year ban on executive officials becoming lobbyists and a lifetime ban on officials becoming lobbyists for a foreign government,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what else I’m going to ban — when we have our purchasing agents giving out billions and billions and billions of dollars of contracts to the military and to all of these people where they’re buying these airplanes where you see these tremendous cost overruns — take a look at the F-35 program, take a look — and the people that gave out those contracts, give me a break, we’re going to impose a lifetime ban on people that give these massive contracts out or even small contracts... You want to work for the United States, you work for the United States. You’re not going to go to work for the people that built these planes.”

Clearly this is currently not the case, at least for head honchos like James. Recently, there has been much talk about Trump's own administration granting waivers allowing lobbyists to work in the White House, moves that run contrary to his claims of "draining the swamp." 

Trump checking out a Dreamliner cockpit at the Boeing factory in South Carolina. , White House photo

I had some hopes that Trump may be able to succeed in one specific place where other Presidents in the past have not—seriously changing the way the Pentagon does business. His selection of retired General James Mattis was also encouraging, but it seems little has been done, or is being done when it comes to instituting new checks on the defense-industrial complex. In fact, what has occurred has been at best comical in its trivialness and and at worst downright misleading. Of course I am referring to Trump's "intervention" in and "negotiating" better deals on a couple high-profile programs he has interest in. The truth is that his actions have been counter-productive to achieving systemic change, are misleading, and they only muddy the procurement waters even more. Not just that, but the President's claims about savings gleaned from his unconventional forays into the world of defense procurement are largely false. As I stated in a previous piece:

To be honest, I had high hopes that Trump could spur systemic change within the DoD's procurement process. Those hopes have faded rapidly over the last three months. It seems that he is far more interested in selectively intervening in a few high-profile programs he has interest in so that he can claim fake victories and gloat about them endlessly to the press, and the defense industry is happy to oblige him if it means funding certainty and a strong order book. 

So there you have it, it's business as usual when it comes to the defense-industrial complex's revolving door now five months into the Trump Administration. Deborah Lee James, the same women who sat atop the USAF and its $100+ billion budget just months ago, will now be working as a top agent for what was one of her biggest suppliers. And the wheels of absurdity within the Pentagon's five walls keep grinding along, unmodified by the changing of the guard. 

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