Through a directive issued last week, President Biden has given his national-security, intelligence, and law-enforcement teams 200 days to make recommendations on how to stem corruption at home and abroad. “Fighting corruption is not just good governance,” Biden said in a statement. “It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.”
One place where these corruption-fighting agencies are unlikely to look: among Biden’s own team.
Dozens of senior officials in the national-security space come from a handful of strategic consulting firms that profited from political connections during the Trump years. Potential conflicts of interest in key national-security fields like Middle East policy, arms sales, and ransomware throw into question the capacity of America to lead globally on ethics and good governance.
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The Biden administration doesn’t seem to grasp that its shadow lobbying undermines global anti-corruption efforts. Business partners of Biden’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, continue to snag powerful roles in the administration. The most recent example is Dan Shapiro, who is under consideration to be Middle East envoy. Shapiro served as Obama’s ambassador to Israel. He has since worked in Israel as a consultant for the boutique firm WestExec Advisors, which Blinken co-founded before joining the Biden administration as secretary of state. Shapiro would be the 12th consultant from Blinken’s small advisory to take on a senior position in the administration.
It would be rude in Washington to say that these entanglements constitute corruption.
The outsized role of diplomat-for-hire firms is a permitted form of cronyism that would be unacceptable in many other countries, but in Washington it has become routine. Blinken’s name still appears on WestExec’s website, alongside a half dozen other former consultants who are now in the administration. This solidifies the fact that the firm trades on its proximity to power.
We have little knowledge about what sort of companies Shapiro was working for in Israel or globally while in the employ of WestExec. The Prospect revealed last summer that WestExec advised Windward, a digital surveillance company that was founded by Israeli intelligence officers and counts former Israeli army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi as a board member.
Progressives have criticized Shapiro for being slanted toward Israel. He has a child in the Israeli military, and he delivered a friendly speech to the hard-right Shurat HaDin, an organization that advocates for Israeli annexation of Palestinian land and brings frivolous and chilling lawsuits against Israeli and Palestinian human rights advocates. His financial stake in the Israeli security state suggests a more subtle type of corrosion, where corporate interests could affect policymaking.
Then there’s Biden’s secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, who before being nominated served as a board director of the weapons-making giant Raytheon Technologies. Austin had to divest of more than a half-million dollars of the corporation’s stock, and he has recused himself for a year from any matter related to Raytheon, as is standard practice for appointees.
Perhaps in recognition of how bad it looks for a recent board member of a weapons maker to be directing the Pentagon, Austin has emphasized the need for good behavior. In March, he sent a memo titled “Reaffirming Our Values and Ethical Conduct” to the entire department. “It means demonstrating in real and meaningful ways the degree to which we take seriously our role as good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars and their trust and confidence,” Austin wrote. “We must ask ourselves at every point in our processes and procedures: Is this the right thing to do … and are we going about it in the right way?” The issue, however, is that with tens of billions of dollars of contracts at home and abroad, Raytheon is entrenched in every aspect of Austin’s work. It’s impossible for any defense secretary to truly disengage from all matters Raytheon.
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This played out recently with the Iron Dome defense system, which Israel uses to intercept Hamas rocket fire. Raytheon makes Iron Dome’s components, and in his press conferences during a recent trip to Israel, Austin seemed to strenuously avoid uttering the name of the advanced defense system co-produced by the Israeli contractor Rafael and his former company. He managed to keep up the streak until last week, after 55 House members sent a letter that urged him to restock Israel’s missiles. In a Friday press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Austin gave the system a ringing endorsement. “As you know, the president has expressed his full support for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which saved so many innocent lives during the most recent conflict,” he said. Austin’s former colleagues at Raytheon must have enjoyed hearing the national-security leader boost their prized product.
All this means that recusals due to corporate interests are an everyday part of the Biden administration. As the scourge of ransomware becomes tantamount to terrorism in the eyes of top U.S. officials, security chiefs’ coziness with one company in particular may prove troublesome. The cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike helps protect companies from expensive and crippling attacks. One of Biden’s closest counselors in the White House, Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, owned between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of CrowdStrike’s stock. Even after divesting from the company, will Finer be influenced by his recent payout?
Separately, CrowdStrike hired Blinken’s firm WestExec for advice. Consultant Chris Inglis earned $15,000 for this work for CrowdStrike, and last week Biden appointed him to be the country’s first national cyber director. Does Inglis now need to step away from all ransomware issues, which are presumably integral to his job? The financial concerns of officials may get in the way of protecting American citizens.
It would be rude in Washington to say that these entanglements constitute corruption. And it’s true that this trend within Biden’s ranks is less nefarious than Trump’s self-dealing and nepotism, but it is damaging nonetheless. Looking at these examples, one realizes that the fundamental problem with Biden’s anti-corruption initiative is the administration hasn’t yet defined corruption. Here’s one potential answer: Corruption is what other people do.