The Quiet Price of Advice

Privacy International 2007 privacy ranking; se...

Privacy Ranking, via Wikipedia

One common thread running through my prior post and the comments thereto, the one on using the Passport Card to better control our borders, is the issue of “privacy”.  Discussing such concerns invariably raises the question of motivation for such privacy concerns.  On a moral scale of 1 to 10, these might run the gamut from stage fright or agoraphobia (score 1?) at the lower end of the scale to embarrassment (score 5?), to off-shore tax evasion (score 10?).

Insignia for Admiral of the Navy, worn by Admi...

George Dewey's Insignia, via Wikipedia

Today I read online what I thought was an interesting example of a privacy concern by a group of 7 retired admirals and generals.  They have been receiving up to $440 an hour to give our military leaders “advice” on war plans and weapons systems, but all seven have now decided to resign from those lucrative jobs because the Secretary of Defense decided to require them to disclose their assets and business ties as a condition of employment.  He also decided to cap their pay at a mere $179,000.  The reason given for their en-masse resignations?  “. . . the disclosure requirement was too

intrusive .. . “ Also interesting to me was that the names of the shy seven were not disclosed.

Three wise men

Three Wise Men, by giopuo via Flickr

The kind of job these people had is called a “military mentor”, an appellation that I find rather strange in this context.  My computer dictionary defines a MENTOR as “an experienced and trusted adviser”, but adds more specifically, “an experienced person in a company, college or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.”  So, I must ask some rather obvious questions about all this.

  1. Do we have an insufficient number of flag officers?
  2. Are our active duty flag officers too young or inexperienced?
  3. Might there be some conflict of interest when, as in this case, such mentors are also paid by defense contractors who wish to sell weapons systems?
  4. Since these mentors were being paid with public funds, why were their positions not made public knowledge?  Does the public have a right to know how their taxes are being spent?

Just as a matter of interest I found one web source relative to question 1. above.  It cites the Congressional Budget Office as a source and says that the ratio of officers to enlisted during WWII was about 1:10 and that from 1990 to the date of the report in 2000 it had slipped from 1:6 to 1:5.

Board meeting room

Boardroom, via Wikipedia

Relative to the privacy question in general I noted recently in USA Today that the SEC, by the narrowest of margins (3 to 2) is giving shareholders of large public companies the right to register their opinions on executive pay at least once every three years.  Gosh, those poor executives are going to be living in a financial fish-bowl I guess. So much for privacy.  What’s a Gordon Gekko to do?

This post is just a start for me because I admit I am somewhat at sea over the privacy subject.  It’s a full spectrum, and naturally Wikipedia has a page on the general subject (which I haven’t read yet).  Surely some privacy is needed, but public disclosure is obviously necessary for financial accountability, law enforcement and moral reasons.  I look forward to any comments you may have on the subject, dear reader.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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6 Responses to The Quiet Price of Advice

  1. jwhester says:

    I’m glad you are tackling this issue. The war on terror has certainly effected our perceptions of privacy.

    Speaking of the FEC, I found this to be of interest: http://www.slate.com/id/2282257/

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  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    I correct errors in my posts when I find them. Here’s one in this one: In the fifth paragraph of this post I discussed a change in disclosure regulations by the “FEC”. That should have been “SEC”, a.k.a., the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    You are bitting off another big one herein, PRIVACY, a subset of your previous “card” blog.

    You said “Surely some privacy is needed, but public disclosure is obviously necessary for financial accountability, law enforcement and moral reasons.”

    First the “moral reason”. I absolutely disagee with arguing for government to do much of anything for moral reasons. That is how we get this huge left, right divide to a degree. My morals are better than yours (or vice versa) and thus “there oughta be a law”. That is the abortion debate in spades for sure. What MORAL reason does the government or public have to know about my finances? NONE is my response.

    Now for law enforcement. The Constitution addresses that quite well. Government MUST have probable cause to think that I have violated the law before it can “search” my financial situation. No probably cause, no search unless I say it is OK. I see no law enforcment reason for financial disclosure from anyone. unless there is reason to suspect illegal activity.

    Financial accountability is another thing. Congress certainly has every right to know how every government nickle is spent as does the public. Hide a nickle in a bureaucracy and you do at least a public disservice (which might be immoral as well to some and for sure illegal in some cases).

    The FACT that 7 admirals were paid $179,000 each for “military mentoring” (I would call it a consultant fee) is a matter of public record and should be. The public also needs to know what benefit the government gained from such consultation or “mentoring”. Where is the public cost benefit analysis on such an issue.

    The issue of “double dipping” is also pertinent. In 1990 when I and others began to attempt to upgrade nuclear safety in the DOE weapons complex the DOE itself had very few “nukes”, people that understood nuclear safety issues and had a long professional track record in such matters.

    EG&G hired three retired “nukes” (me, one flag officer, and one other more junior officer) to begin that process. There were very, very few people in the DOE bureaucracy that had any clue what we were trying to do, Admiral Watkins, the Secretary of Energy, being a big exception. DOE needed some good “nukes”.

    But no sensible retired navy nuke would go to work for the DOE a government agency as a government employee because they would not be paid their military pension during such government employment. I on the other hand received my pension (legally and morally in my view) based on previous service, while at the same time my private company paid me a “prevailing wage” based on my current service to that company.

    That issue was a huge issue in the early 90’s while DOE struggled to bring modern nuclear practices to a defunct industry. It never became a big public issue but it was a HUGE issue within the bureaucracy.

    First, the “old timers” in the bureaucray “hated” navy nukes coming in and pointing out egregious errors in how that bureaucracy had operated for 50 years while essentially ignoring (or certainly short changing) nuclear safety. For those “new guys” to collect a pension while also being paid the prevailing wage within the bureaucracy was unthinkable to the “old timers”. Jealousy, arrogance, you name it inflamed that argument.

    Admiral (SECENERGY) Watkins had a handfull on that one but he eventually prevailed with some regulatory change that allowed retired navy nukes to be provided exceptions in the matter. I bet as someone reads this today they may be screaming their heads off over “unfairness” to the “old timers”.

    Now if my name had been used publicly in the media to denigrate the efforts of navy nukes to provide a service to upgrade nuclear safety, I would have been incensed. Such was not the case nor was it for some very good “nukes” that eventually went to work as DOE employees and were of great help in the transistion of that agency to modern nuclear safety practices. Was it worth the cost? You decide on that matter.

    Same for the 7 retired flags in DOD. I have no idea what they did or why they were paid their fees. One the surface of your disclosure one might think it was terrible to “waste that money”. I don’t know for sure but to name the names of those “consultants”….. What possible purpose would it serve other than embarrassment of the DOD officials doing the hiring or the flags receiving the salary or fee for their services, good or bad?

    I am all for financial accountability for how the government spends its money. We need far more of such transperancy for sure. We also need to understand the true benefit of such expenditures of that money, good or bad.

    But naming names, unless the activity was indeed illegal, I don’t see the rational behind that one, yet.

    I as a private citizen employeed by a private company did nothing illegal or immoral in the work performed or the salary I was paid. Neither did the men that eventually went to work for DOE as government employees in those trying times.

    The only issue that the public had a right to know is did we do our jobs and “earn our pay” whatever that pay might have been. I can show you lots of “battle scars” from those days that sends a resounding YES to that reply. But ask me to disclose my bank statements during those years and I will tell you to ……

    I will also mention that when I was the General Manager at a DOE facility my private company salary had to be approved by DOE under terms of the contract with them. EG&G could pay me whatever they chose but would only be reimbursed in the amount authorized by DOE contracting officers. Anything “extra” came right off the EG&G bottom line and was a private matter between me, the CEO and the stockholders of EG&G. Now tell me any good reason why the public should know that information?

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson,
      I am flattered that you read my post so well as to pick out the “moral reasons” for public disclosure of public funds. Now that you point it out it causes me to wonder whether it was a case of facile flinging on my part. The first thing that pops into my head about that is the case where investigators found that a sizable number of SEC executives were watching porn on their office computers 3 or 4 hours a day while Wall St. burned down (metaphorically). Probably not the best example. The best defense I can offer for including that, really, is that it is redundant to the other two reasons, financial accountability and law enforcement. And now that I think about it, law enforcement is probably redundant to financial accountability. But, the prime thing I mean to emphasize is that the spending of public funds should be, well, public.

      You say that “Congress certainly has every right to know how every government nickel is spent as does the public.” I say that the public, mainly through the press, also has that right. There is a difference.

      Your experience as a military nuclear expert (don’t argue, you are for sure) being brought in at even indirect public expense to help with touchy nuclear safety problems is instructive. In my opinion you do a public service by airing the particulars of that here. (I only wish I had a bigger audience for it.) But I really don’t understand why your are defensive about it. It seems very clear to me that that was an unusual circumstance that was totally justified. The Navy’s outstanding success with nuclear safety is virtually unblemished and well-known and any detractors would, IMO, be quickly quashed by the facts.

      Now, about naming names. First, I think that is just part of not making exceptions to the need for pubic transparency in spending. But, secondly, let’s take the hypothetical case of a General who is on the payroll of, say, Boeing, and is also hired as a “mentor” to advise the Air Force on what kind of transport plane to buy, and the choices are Boeing or Grumman. I contend that naming the General is important because that allows the press to analyze the situation for the public. Does he have the appropriate background for the job? Who else does he “consult” for? Who in government are his friends and contacts? Was his career without blemish?

      Basically, it’s all about eliminating conflicts of interest.

      Thanks for adding some real-life experience to this post.

      Jim W.

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  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    If I sounded defensive count it as bad writing. I was not trying to be so. I was only “laying out the facts” of a particular situation, real world, that I hope supported my points.

    Now let’s talk about the “General” acting as both a Boeing employee and defense department consultant. While I was NOT a general, I did the same thing as a civilian.

    My first job as a civilian was employment with General Dynamics a MAJOR defense contractor, submarine design agency and constuctor of submarines. I received my military pension as well as a “prevailing wage” salary as a General Dynanmics employee and worked as such for about a year before moving into the DOE business.

    My largest contribution in that job was called the Future Undersea Warfare Options Study (FUWOS as it became to be known in Gen Dyn and DARPA, a defense agency). I let my brain loose and imagined the kind of submarine I would like to command 20 years into the future and taking into consideration the dramatic geopolitical changes (Berlin Wall going down) at the time of the study.

    I briefed the study, after some 6 months or so developing it, to the CEO and others in GD, the President of Electric Boat and a host of other corporate officials in GD. It was imaginary and “far out” but had some sense in it as well (like putting cruise missiles in older SSBNs for “low intensity warfare” as we see at sea today some 25 years later).

    I also briefed DARPA a governement agency. In the several DARPA briefings there was a retired 3 star that had been COMSUBLANT during my command tour. He was a DARPA consultant/mentor, was paid a salary at government expense (mine was at GD expense) and we both received our military pensions.

    Anything wrong in that scenario?

    The Navy Captain heading up the undersea warfare section of DARPA at the time was still on active duty and both the 3 star and I knew him as a junior officer during our active duty days. While not a “friend” that young Captain was indeed a professional acquaintance in earlier times.

    Is that insestuous?

    Now I lay no claim whatsoever for “making the Navy” do future creative things. But the study did stir the imagination of a pretty staid industry. One of the great concerns when I presented the briefing was “What would Naval Reactors think”. Rickover was long gone by then but NR still ruled the bureaucratic roost in terms of submarine innovation. And you can believe that NR had their “spies” all over DC watching what I was doing very carefully. But that is a different story as well.

    My only real point in this sea story or “tale” is we all must be aware of POTENTIAL conflict of interest but THAT alone should not stop creative thinking and stimulating new ideas. Try such while on active duty (I did in the Pentagon and got ignored) and you won’t get too far, at least as a Navy Captain. But as a civilian with some limited experience in such matters, well it is possible to make small differences along the way.

    And again, the public, the media, or anyone else other than my “boss” has no need to know my financial situation in such circumstances.

    Like I pointed out in the beginning, a big and tough issue, this privacy thing.

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson,

      What you offer is, IMHO, a good example of a “military mentor” system at work. Your own participation was fully justified by your own Navy track record, but, since you were not separately paid as a mentor anything you suggested which might benefit GD in the future would be, correctly in my view, subject to question of motive. That doesn’t mean that you had any ulterior motive and I sure you didn’t. I’m just saying, the potential was there, but it was there in full view of anyone who wanted to question it. Fine.

      But, what about the retired 3-star who was being paid as a mentor? Was he also being paid, secretly (or, “privately”, if you prefer), by GD and/or other defense contractors? I’m guessing that you don’t know for sure. If he were, could that be a potential conflict of interest? I think so.

      Let’s hypothesize that retired Vice Admiral X was on the payroll of a company that held a patent on anechoic coatings which deaden acoustic reflections from active sonars and that his employer stood to make really big bucks if the idea were to be seriously adopted in future design. Let’s also suppose that others favored holding down costs by not adopting that notion, justifying their position with data showing that the Russian fleet was moribund and that active sonars of other potential threats were likely to be ineffective against our uncoated submarine designs. (Costs do matter, don’t they?) If Admiral X’s view in the study was found to be persuasive, should Congressional reviewers, the press, and their constituencies be entitled to know about his potential conflict of interest? Therein, I submit, lies the problem. I say, yes. Your point about experienced people such as yourself being able to contribute ideas freely outside the influence of the chain of command is important. I maintain that the SECDEF’s rules about potential conflicts of interest are equally so.

      Thanks, Anson, for this real-world example.

      Jim W.

      Like

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