Pentagon mentor programs to see ‘dramatic changes’

For immediate release: Feb 3, 2010

WASHINGTON — A review of the Pentagon’s use of retired senior officers to advise the military will propose “dramatic changes” in how the programs are run, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee today.

Gates ordered a Pentagon-wide review by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn of the programs in December after a USA TODAY investigation found that retired officers could make far more money as “senior mentors” than they did as active-duty officers, still collect pensions and work for defense contractors who sell systems to the Pentagon.

MORE: Sen. Webb questions Navy adviser’s role in carrier move
RETIRED OFFICERS: Colorado firm employs the most
MENTOR PROGRAM: Gates orders review

Gates said the changes were coming although Lynn’s review was not done. He added that the mentors’ experience is valued by the military.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Marine veteran in Vietnam, blasted the program, saying it allowed “a retired admiral or general (to) make more in a day than a corporal in Afghanistan will make in a month.”

A senior mentor, Webb said, is being overpaid “basically to do what he’s supposed to do anyway. And that is to fulfill the stewardship for having spent a career in the military.”

The lack of oversight, he added, means the program can be abused.

“They’re hired as independent contractors so they’re not subject to government ethics rules,” Webb said. “They operate outside public scrutiny. And many of them work for weapons makers and in fact are able to either gain information for their companies or exchange data.”

The programs, which pay the retired officers up to $486 an hour, do not represent “the military I grew up in, and not the one you grew up in, admiral,” Webb told Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Addressing Gates, Webb, a former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said: “And it’s not the Pentagon I served in the 1980s.”

If the Pentagon needs to save money, Webb said, it should trim funds from the mentor programs before cutting back on the number of troops.

Gates and Mullen appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify about the Obama administration’s Pentagon budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

USA TODAY first reported on the programs in November, showing that at least 158 retired officers have advised the military on various issues, from running military exercises to advising current commanders on what to look for in combat. Of those mentors, 80% had ties to defense firms trying to sell products and services to the same military branches the retirees are advising.

The revelations have led to three separate investigations: Lynn’s, another by the Pentagon inspector general that was ordered by Congress, and a third by a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. McCaskill said Tuesday that she shared Webb’s concerns.

What USA TODAY found on the mentor programs is “pretty ugly,” McCaskill said. “We’ve got to get it under control and make sure it’s transparent.”

Webb has been particularly critical of the programs in recent weeks, because of the role of Robert Natter, a retired Navy admiral who is both a mentor and lobbyist for the city of Jacksonville.

Natter lobbies Congress, the Navy and the Pentagon to add more military facilities to Jacksonville, including the basing of a nuclear aircraft carrier. On Monday, a Pentagon panel recommended moving a nuclear carrier to the Jacksonville area from Norfolk, Va., where the Navy’s eastern carrier fleet is based.

In December, Webb wrote to Lynn that basing the carrier in Florida was “fiscally irresponsible and strategically unjustified.” He estimated it would cost $1 billion to upgrade the port in Florida to accommodate the carrier.

Webb asked Lynn to determine if Natter attempted to influence the decision to relocate the carrier. The Pentagon, in a long-range planning document released Monday, said shifting one carrier from Virginia to Florida would mitigate the risk to the East Coast fleet from a terror attack or natural disaster.

Natter told USA TODAY Monday that he had nothing to do with the recommendation to move the carrier to Mayport, Fla., which is near Jacksonville. Senate lobbying records show Natter’s firm was paid $60,000 last year by Jacksonville to lobby on basing issues.