THE BLOG
04/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Private Mentoring Contractors

Today, USA Today has an article about yesterday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the FY 2011 military budget request.

The article noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised "dramatic changes" in how the Pentagon uses retired officers to advise the military.

It is understandable that USA Today would focus on this, as it broke the story last November after doing an investigation which found that retired officers could make far more money as "senior mentors" than they did as active-duty officers. In addition, those officers can collect pensions and work for contractors who sell to the Pentagon.

This gives new meaning to the traditional private military contractor acronym, transforming it into Private Mentoring Contractors. This is not necessarily a bad thing. MPRI, for example, has long provided consulting services to support the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). TRADOC is responsible for developing standards and operations to build a uniformly trained Army

Private mentors are at least a slight improvement on what has gone on before. Those with longer memories might recall back in April 2008 when the New York Times broke the news on the use of retired military officers to help generate domestic propaganda for the Bush administration's wartime performance.

Back then, as I wrote for UPI, such officers could legitimately be called Private Shill Contractors.

Still, some critics (see excerpts below from the Committee hearing) find the practice of military mentors ethically questionable. Interestingly, two of the mentors USA Today uncovered have worked for companies, such as Dyncorp and MPRI, which are members of the International Peace Operations Association. IPOA is a well known trade group, which has long touted its Code of Conduct to "ensure the ethical standards of IPOA member companies operating in conflict and post-conflict environments so that they may contribute their valuable services for the benefit of international peace and human security.

Although even IPOA acknowledges that its Code is unenforceable, in the sense that there are no penalties for violations of its code other than possibly being kicked out of IPOA, I generally agree that it is better to have it than not.

Admittedly, working at the Pentagon or other stateside military base or command is not exactly what you would call a conflict environment (notwithstanding the shootings at Fort Hood). Nonetheless IPOA might do well to revise the ethics clause in its code. As it now stands, Section 9.1 says "Signatories shall go beyond the minimum legal requirements and support additional ethical imperatives that are essential for effective peace and stability operations" and is irrelevant to the issue of private mentoring contractors.

SEN. JIM WEBB, D-VA: There's a program existing right now -- and I don't know the extent of it -- where we're sending -- basically sending military officers over to staff and fund think tanks. Your own undersecretary of Defense was part of creating a -- a think tank -- CNAS.

My understanding of these programs is they get military fellows. These are active duty people. They go over. They get their full pay and allowances. But not only that -- they get tuition. The numbers that I -- that I saw were $17,000 a semester -- quote -- whatever a semester is while you're over there -- to pay the rent, the computers, and -- and all the rest of that. And essentially what that means is the American taxpayer is funding think tanks basically to keep them in business.

They don't produce any really added value to the Department of Defense in my view in terms of direct contribution. Another example just came up over the past couple of months is this mentors (ph) program. Where according to the news reports you can have retired high ranking general officers and admirals making well in excess of $100,000 a year in their retirement.

Eighty percent of these people working with defense contractors. And then going there, and then making up to $2,600 a day to give their advice. In other words, a retired admiral or general can make more in a day than a corporal in Afghanistan will make in a month basically to do what he's supposed to do anyway. And that is fulfill his stewardship from having spent a -- a career in the military.

I don't know the full cost of that. But according to USA Today these -- these people are being paid between $200.00 and $340.00 an hour plus expenses. They're hired as independent contractors so they're not subject to government ethics rules. They operate outside public scrutiny. And many of them work for weapons makers, and -- and in effect are able to either gain information for companies, or exchange data.

That's not the military I grew up in. That's not the military that you and I served in, Admiral. And that's not the Pentagon that I served in in the 1980s. So these are the kinds of things, Mr. Secretary, I think we can do, and not affect fore (ph) structure.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN (USN), CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Well we certainly will continue to look at these things. I will tell you on the mentoring program the deputy secretary has been reviewing this. And I think you will see some -- we -- we think there is great value in the program. But you will see some fairly dramatic changes in the way it's administered.

WEBB: I would certainly hope so.

...

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-MO: And I wanted to ditto Senator Webb on the mentoring program. Pretty ugly. We've got to get that under control and make sure that it's transparent. The revolving door at the Pentagon deserves as much attention as the revolving door in Congress.