Big Mouths for Arms Spending Mum on Industry Backers

April 3rd, 2023 - by Ben Freeman and Yameen Huq / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Even with Budget Requests Needlessly High,
Think-tanks Paid by Defense Firms Call for More
Ben Freeman and Yameen Huq / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(March 29, 2023) — Earlier this month, President Biden requested the largest defense budget in US history. Even adjusting for inflation, this $842 billion budget — which will likely increase with congressional add-ons and additional spending for the war in Ukraine — could ultimately give the Pentagon more taxpayer money than when the US had more than 100,000 troops on the ground at the height of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

But you’d have no idea that was the case if you read Pentagon contractor funded think tanks’ commentary about the budget, which have been clamoring for even more Pentagon spending, often without disclosing that the beneficiaries of it fund their organizations.

“For defense, this is a pretty substantial step backwards,” a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The Hill. This amounts to a “$28 billion cut to programs and activities” after you account for a troop pay raise and inflation, an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) expert told Defense News, which added that the AEI expert was pushing for a DOD budget of at least $882 billion. That $882 billion figure is, perhaps coincidentally, the exact amount of Pentagon funding another AEI scholar promoted in a recent op-ed for Breaking Defense.

Unsurprisingly, think tank arguments for increasing Pentagon funding have also found their way into mainstream media outlets. The day before the Biden administration released its fiscal year 2024 budget, the Washington Post published an article bemoaning the defense industry’s limited capacity to “build things to kill people,” as the head of a munitions facility told the Post. The piece cited CSIS research on the defense industry’s struggles to replace stockpiles of the tens of billions of dollars in munitions the US has given Ukraine.

Earlier that same week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article proclaiming “The US Is Not Yet Ready for the Era of ‘Great Power’ Conflict.” As evidence, the author cited a CSIS wargame that simulated a Chinese attack on Taiwan in which “the US side ran out of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles in a week.” That same CSIS study was cited in a New York Times article published last week titled “From Rockets to Ball Bearings, Pentagon Struggles To Feed War Machine.”

What goes unmentioned in any of these articles is that these think tanks clamoring for more defense funding are funded by the defense industry.

CSIS is commendably transparent about its funding and provides a publicly available list of donors on its website. And, that list is filled with defense contractors. In total, 20 different defense contractors provided the organization with a total of at least $2.2 million last year. The top defense sector donor to CSIS was Northrop Grumman, which gave the organization more than $500,000. The firm builds many of the military’s weapons, most notably munitions, the organization’s scholars have been pushing.

A spokesperson for CSIS explained that, “CSIS is an independent non-profit with a diverse funding base and the conclusions of our scholars are theirs alone,” and, “CSIS discloses our donors on our website. We also disclose funders of our research reports in the reports themselves. We do this because we believe our audience should know who supports our work.”

Yet, this only applies to research reports with dedicated external funding, the spokesperson explained, not work done through general support funding like the CSIS report on the need for investing in US munitions that has been widely cited in media outlets with no disclosure in the report that the munitions in question are made by the organization’s funders.

AEI does not publicly provide a list of its funders and did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its funding. But the moderator of a public AEI event last year noted that “both Lockheed and Northrop provide philanthropic support to AEI. We are grateful for that support.”

While much of the commentary from defense industry-funded think tanks simply recommends a rising tide of Pentagon spending that would presumably lift all contractor boats, some articles exhibit more direct conflicts of interest. For example, an AEI scholar’s critique of the Pentagon budget request — which is allegedly “well below inflation” and “has teed up Capitol Hill to save the day”— also included support for increased funding for a number of weapons, including the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, the B-21 bomber and the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the companies that build these weapons, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have also been AEI funders. The scholar is thus recommending that billions of taxpayer dollars be given to businesses that fund her organization, without disclosing this conflict of interest in the article or on AEI’s website.

These obvious, but undisclosed conflicts of interest, where organizations funded by the defense industry are clamoring for ever more taxpayer dollars going to the defense industry, suggest several recommendations.

First and foremost, think tanks should provide a list of their funders on their website. This is a basic level of transparency that most D.C. think tanks have now adopted and which makes AEI’s lack of transparency all the more noteworthy.

Second, media outlets have an obligation to their readers to disclose any potential conflicts of interests that their sources might have. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low and, even more alarmingly, a recent Gallup survey found that half of Americans believe media outlets intentionally try to mislead or misinform the public. Proactively disclosing conflicts of interests is thus a vitally important step media can take to regain the public’s trust, akin to conflict of interest policies in medical research. After all, if conflict of interest disclosure is important in healthcare, it is surely essential in discussions of war and peace.

Finally, think tank scholars should proactively disclose any potential conflicts of interest within the articles or reports they publish. Unfortunately, most readers don’t make it to the end of articles (hey, thanks if you’re still here!), thus it’s naive to assume they’ll scour a think tanks website for a list of donors. In the defense budget space an example well worth following is Loren Thompson, a Forbes columnist and Chief Operating Officer of the hawkish Lexington Institute, who unabashedly discloses his think tank’s funders within articles that mention them. By placing this information within articles, Thompson is giving his readers the full story and letting them know he’s not hiding anything.

As an AEI scholar writing in support of legislation requiring transparency of foreign funding explained earlier this month, funding “is mostly a problem when it is secret or when those donating do not respect the intellectual independence of the institutions to which they seek to make gifts. Transparency should be the standard not only for universities and think tanks, but also for individuals.”

We could not agree more and encourage all think tank scholars to heed those words.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.