Retired Flag Officers Cashing In As Foreign Agents

An unsavory practice that's mostly legal.

An investigative report by Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones at WaPo, “RETIRED U.S. GENERALS, ADMIRALS TAKE TOP JOBS WITH SAUDI CROWN PRINCE,” looks into a continuing and depressing saga.

More than 500 retired U.S. military personnel — including scores of generals and admirals — have taken lucrative jobs since 2015 working for foreign governments, mostly in countries known for human rights abuses and political repression, according to a Washington Post investigation.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, 15 retired U.S. generals and admirals have worked as paid consultants for the Defense Ministry since 2016. The ministry is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who U.S. intelligence agencies say approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, as part of a brutal crackdown on dissent.

Saudi Arabia’s paid advisers have included retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a national security adviser to President Barack Obama, and retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, who led the National Security Agency under Obama and President George W. Bush, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Others who have worked as consultants for the Saudis since Khashoggi’s murder include a retired four-star Air Force general and a former commanding general of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Most of the retired U.S. personnel have worked as civilian contractors for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf monarchies, playing a critical, though largely invisible, role in upgrading their militaries.

So, on the surface at least, there would seem little wrong with this. Retired generals and admirals are, for the most part, simply “civilians” and entitled to work, with some short-term exceptions, for whom they please. Jones retired way back in 2007 and, while he’s still incredibly influential as a former Marine Commandant and Supreme Allied Commander, it’s been a long time, indeed, since he had any direct authority. Further, Saudi, UAE, and others are ostensibly allies or partners.

All the while, the gulf countries’ security forces have continued to commit human rights abuses at home and beyond their borders. With shared intelligence, aerial refueling and other support from the U.S. government and contractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have intervened in Yemen’s civil war to disastrous effect, triggering a global humanitarian crisis and killing thousands of civilians, according to United Nations investigators.

That’s unsavory, to say the least. Then again, until recently, the Saudi intervention in Yemen had de facto US backing, in that we saw it as a proxy fight against the Iran-backed Houthis.

Foreign governments have long advanced their interests in Washington by paying Americans as lobbyists, lawyers, political consultants, think tank analysts and public relations advisers. But the hiring of retired U.S. military personnel for their expertise and political clout has accelerated over the past decade as oil-rich gulf monarchies have splurged on defense spending and strengthened their security partnerships with the Pentagon.

Buying influence and expertise is nothing new. It’s just accelerating as they become more brazen in throwing cash around.

Congress permits retired troops as well as reservists to work for foreign governments if they first obtain approval from their branch of the armed forces and the State Department. But the U.S. government has fought to keep the hirings secret. For years, it withheld virtually all information about the practice, including which countries employ the most retired U.S. service members and how much money is at stake.

Presumably, this is a reference to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which most of us only vaguely knew existed until it was so blatantly and routinely violated by those, including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, in the previous administration. Also, as noted later in the piece, it’s rooted in the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution which, again, was given little attention until the Trump administration routinely violated them.

To shed light on the matter, The Post sued the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the State Department in federal court under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After a two-year legal battle, The Post obtained more than 4,000 pages of documents, including case files for about 450 retired soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

The documents show that foreign governments pay handsomely for U.S. military talent, with salary and benefit packages reaching six and, sometimes, seven figures — far more than what most American service members earn while on active duty. At the top of the scale, active four-star generals earn $203,698 a year in basic pay.

Pay for most government employees is capped at that level, although the brass have the loophole of untaxed “allowances” that push them beyond that. Additionally, the cap doesn’t apply to retired pay, so many of them immediately earn a pay raise when they leave active duty. Regardless, yes, that’s chump change to the Saudis and others.

In comparison, the government of Australia has given consulting deals worth more than $10 million to several former senior U.S. Navy officials. A consulting firm owned by six retired Pentagon officials and military officers negotiated a $23.6 million contract with Qatar, a Persian Gulf sheikhdom that hosts a major U.S. air base, though the proposal later fell through. In Azerbaijan, a retired U.S. Air Force general was offered a consulting gig at a rate of $5,000 a day.

That’s good money if you can get it.

Retired generals and admirals command the most money, but former enlisted personnel can also collect hefty foreign paychecks on top of their U.S. military pensions, records show.

Saudi Arabia hired a former Navy SEAL to work as a special operations adviser for $258,000 a year. The UAE gave annual compensation packages worth more than $200,000 to helicopter pilots and $120,000 to aircraft mechanics. In Indonesia, a government-owned mining firm employed a retired U.S. Marine master sergeant as a transportation consultant at a rate of $500 a day, plus living expenses.

I see these as very different things, though. Retired enlisted personnel and even relatively junior officers (lieutenant colonel/commander and below) are being recruited purely for their technical expertise. Generals and admirals being rented for their influence with serving officials. Jim Jones doesn’t wield any official power but damned if people won’t pick up the phone when he calls.

Many U.S. generals and admirals have profited from connections built during wartime by later working for Middle Eastern countries where they were once stationed. Records show that a few American officers even negotiated jobs with foreign governments while they were still on active duty.

This is always a gray area to me but we invest considerable resources into “transition” programs for those retiring from active service. Additionally, a lot of these folks presumably have significant accrued leave, which they can take on a “terminal” basis. So, it’s quite possible to be working another job while still technically on active duty.

Military officials redacted the pay packages for retired generals and admirals, as well as the names of lower-ranking personnel. In legal motions, U.S. officials argued that releasing the information would violate former service members’ privacy and could subject them to “embarrassment and harassment” and “unfairly harm their public reputation.”

The Post identified some of the names and redacted details through reporting. It has continued to sue the armed forces and the State Department to obtain the rest of the information.

It’s honestly not clear to me why, if these folks aren’t breaking any laws, why it’s any of our business for whom they’re working, much less how much they’re making.

In September, U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta ruled largely in favor of The Post and ordered the government to release the pay packages and other withheld material.

In his order, Mehta called the government’s privacy arguments “unconvincing.” In particular, he added, “the public has a right to know if high-ranking military leaders are taking advantage of their stations — or might be perceived to be doing so — to create employment opportunities with foreign governments in retirement.”

So . . . yes. Scrutiny is warranted for those who register as foreign agents within short order of leaving government service. But that doesn’t require releasing the names and pay of every single retiree who is drawing money from a foreign country.

An attorney for the Justice Department said it was considering an appeal of the judge’s decision.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington, filed a similar public-records lawsuit against the State Department to learn more about how former U.S. service members are selling their military expertise to foreign powers. POGO shared the documents it received from the State Department with The Post.

Brandon Brockmyer, POGO’s director of investigations and research, said retired senior military officers often testify before Congress and appear on television to debate national security, but rarely divulge whether they are on a foreign government’s payroll.

“The public is working on the assumption that their sole loyalty is to the United States,” he said. “The public has the right to know whether and how a foreign power has access to their expertise.”

So, that’s a much better justification for knowing the information. But there are far simpler ways to go about that. We could require full disclosure up front before testimony takes place. Or, if we really think working for a foreign government compromises these folks’ loyalty to the United States we could change the law to prohibit it altogether or at least mandate a waiting period to devalue the access. That’s what we do with retired officers working for domestic defense contractors who did business with their previous office.

As it stands, the law is pretty weak. On the surface, not so much:

Under federal law, retired U.S. military personnel — generally defined as those who served at least 20 years in uniform and are entitled to a pension — are restricted from receiving anything of value from foreign governments that could compromise their sworn allegiance to the United States.

The prohibition stems from the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which forbids federal officeholders to accept gifts, jobs or titles “from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without the consent of Congress. The law applies to military retirees because they can be recalled to active duty at any time.

Except that

In 1977, Congress delegated the authority to approve veterans’ foreign work to the Pentagon and State Department.

Those approvals are necessary before the retirees can accept any compensation, even travel expenses, from a foreign government or state-owned company. Retirees may work only as civilians, not as uniformed personnel.

What spurned this change in 1977, I haven’t the foggiest.

Those seeking authorization for foreign work must also pass a background check and counterintelligence review. The State Department and the armed forces have wide latitude to deny any application they think “would adversely affect the foreign relations of the United States.” But The Post investigation found that approval is almost automatic. Of the more than 500 requests submitted since 2015, about 95 percent were granted.

One imagines we don’t invest a lot of staffing resources into this problem.

The armed forces rely on retired military personnel to self-report their intent to work for foreign governments. Many veterans don’t bother. The Post identified scores of retirees on LinkedIn who say they have taken military contracting jobs in the Persian Gulf, but for whom there is no record of federal approval.

There is no criminal penalty for violating the law. Enforcement is almost nonexistent.

That seems . . . problematic.

There’s a lot more to the piece but much of it’s in the weeds.

Again, I think the issues of retired senior leaders and rank-and-file members are very different. That we have so little appetite for curtailing influence peddling for the former is troubling but perhaps not altogether surprising given that so many Congressmen and former senior Executive branch leaders do the same thing. Pretty much every former Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor has a “consulting” firm.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    So, on the surface at least, there would seem little wrong with this. Retired generals and admirals are, for the most part, simply “civilians” and entitled to work, with some short-term exceptions, for whom they please.

    No. Retired generals and admirals have information relating to US security in their heads. That isn’t wiped clean on the day of retirement. Holders of clearances are subject to restrictions on their activities (or used to be) for various amounts of time after they retire. Some have restrictions on where they can travel for the rest of their lives, partly for their knowledge and partly because they could become hostages.

    I decided not to take some job assignments because of those restrictions. Others were okay with the restrictions.

    I know this is a revolutionary thing to say in these times of monetary supremacy, but service to country eliminates some options.

    Those big paychecks are for precisely what is in those retired officers’ heads. Not that they’ve been sharing classified information, just that it’s impossible to separate it from whatever advice they’re giving.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    I think the issue is more with cases like the ones mentioned in this article:

    China’s military is trying to recruit ex-British Air Force pilots for training and intel, UK says

    Some 30 former British military pilots are believed to have gone to work for China to train personnel in its People’s Liberation Army, according to a BBC report on the topic published Tuesday. Recruitment is said to be ramping up, with former pilots being offered large paychecks to work for the Chinese.

    “All serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defence, while the new National Security Bill will create additional tools to tackle contemporary security challenges – including this one,” the MOD spokesperson added.

    While training and recruiting pilots is not illegal under U.K. law, the practice presents an intelligence risk as U.K. officials suspect China’s military aims to learn about tactics and operations employed by Western pilots. This knowledge would come in handy in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, for instance.

  3. steve says:

    I can see some benefits for the US of having retired senior officers doing some work in the private sector but the negatives are also pretty high. When they go to foreign countries I think it tips even more towards benefitting only the consultant and the country where they work, not so much the US. At the very least, I think this should be open and transparent. Any of us ought to be able to look and see for whom these guys are working. I could easily be convinced we should go beyond that and say they should not work overseas.


  4. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: My shorthand isn’t a legal opinion but, frankly, the statutory limitations on officers two years or more out of their last post are pretty thin and already covered in the WaPo piece.

  5. Jay says:

    A partial solution to this is that if a retired military member registers as a foreign agent they forego, for all time, their military pension. (And if they do not register, they should be prosecuted under FARA.) I say partial because some of these arrangements are so lucrative that the retiree may well say “bring it on.”

  6. Gustopher says:

    I guess patriotism is too much to ask for in our retired generals?

    (Meanwhile, there are jobs I haven’t pursued because they were too close to things I did for former employers, and I knew that I would be bringing along confidential information… I guess I’m just a sucker.)