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Seminars teach senior officers how to land industry jobs

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in 1961 about undue influence of the “military industrial complex’’ on Pentagon policy. Were he alive today, 50 years after that famous speech, he might be stunned at how completely his prophetic warning has been ignored.

Former officers and specialists say the defense industry’s political might is getting a new boost from an accelerating flow of retired generals and admirals.

“Ike would have a problem with it,’’ said retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni.

The Department of Defense does not. In fact, it runs an exclusive job service to teach soon-to-retire generals how to land jobs in the defense industry. And military firms routinely recruit elite officers while they are still in uniform.

In rare cases, generals have gone so far as to establish their own consulting firms before retirement.

The vast majority are “class A, high-driving, patriotic people who want to contribute to the nation and do the right thing,’’ said Howard Bushman, a Beltway lawyer who represents generals who operate their own consulting firms.

But, he added, “Some are wheelers and dealers. Some guys are in the Pentagon working the phones [to get consulting work] while they are still in their job.’’

The defense industry pays large sums to the retired flag officers it hires. For the rapidly growing corps of consultants, fees reach thousands of dollars a day; monthly retainers can run between $20,000 and $50,000 for individual clients. The busiest and most influential retired generals are earning millions of dollars a year, according to industry sources.

Even with a generous pension — 100 percent of their salary and lifelong benefits — a number of retired generals interviewed by the Globe said they needed to make more money after decades of living on a military salary and saving little. Several said they never owned a home while they were in the military and had college-age kids when they were getting ready to retire in their mid-50s. The financial rewards of a job in industry were difficult to resist.

“It is what put meat on the table,’’ said Zinni, the retired Marine Corps general who is now chairman of the board of BAE Systems, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors.

Intense competition for contracts is helping drive the industry’s insatiable desire for influential and well-connected insiders.

So is the burgeoning business of outsourcing war.

The Pentagon is increasingly hiring private firms to do work that soldiers and sailors once performed. The result is that some generals are finding jobs in private industry performing many of the same supervisory duties they did while in service, such as managing security at military bases around the world.

To take one relatively small example, the Globe’s inquiries to the Army about the role of retired generals in the defense industry were fielded by ex-military officers who are now civilian contractors at a company called Military Professional Resources, Inc. The company provides training and logistics support to militaries around the world.

“The revolving door may no longer be the most apt metaphor. It’s more like a military-industrial complex blender,’’ said Daniel Wirls, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and author of a book on the intersection of industry and Pentagon policy.

Despite widespread concerns about a corrosive effect of the phenomenon on the military, the transition of retired senior officers to the defense industry is actively encouraged by parts of the Department of Defense.

Since the early 1990s, the Navy and Air Force have been sending retiring senior officers — in some cases a full two years before they leave the military — to taxpayer-funded career seminars on Coronado Island near San Diego. They are taught how to write a resume and to network in private industry.

“Even if you are a four-star admiral you may not know what is out there,’’ says John Ruehlin, a retired admiral and president of the firm Ruehlin and Associates, which records show has received millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts over the last decade to organize the career seminars.

“Some do it several years before they retire,’’ said another Ruehlin official who asked not to be named, “and figure out how to set themselves up.’’

The seminars are reserved for military officers from the ranks of lieutenant colonel and above and the most senior ranks of noncommissioned officers. For many retired flag officers, however, attending a seminar isn’t as important as simply following the example of their predecessors.

When Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa retired in August, he drew quickly on his experience as the Pentagon’s gatekeeper for international weapons sales, providing advice to Computer Sciences Corp., which sells computer systems to aerospace and defense customers around the world.

In choosing his second career, Wieringa was following in some familiar footsteps. His six immediate predecessors at the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency had gone to work in industry, working to boost overseas arms and technology deals, according to a Globe review.

“If you haven’t done it, it is complicated stuff,’’ Wieringa said of the Pentagon’s approval procedures for defense sales to foreign countries and corporations. “If you’ve done it, it is easy.’’

Other retired generals and admirals interviewed by the Globe said they were unprepared for the intense demand for their services.

“The defense guys come after you. I am talking about the large companies,’’ said three-star Vice Admiral William D. Crowder, who established a consulting firm after he retired earlier this year as deputy chief of naval operations. “People start knowing that you’re out.’’