The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflicts of Interest at the Center for a New American Security — Revolving Door Project

My colleague Erica Jung and I released a report titled “The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflicts of Interest at the Center for a New American Security” via the Revolving Door Project.

Here are links to the full report, the press release, a summary article by Branko Marcetic at Jacobin, and an article about the report by Nathan Robinson at Current Affairs. My own op-ed following up on the report with additional analysis can be found on Responsible Statecraft.

The following is the introduction to the report:

Since its founding in 2007, the bipartisan think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has functioned not only as a research institution, but also as an incubator from which presidential administrations select foreign policy personnel. Under the new US presidential administration, at least 16 CNAS alumni have been selected for foreign policy positions.

It is concerning, then, that the Center has exhibited a pattern of behavior in which serious conflicts of interest have gone unacknowledged and undisclosed. CNAS receives large contributions directly from defense contractors, foreign governments, and the US government; publishes research and press material that frequently supports the interests of its sponsors without proper disclosure; and even gives its financial sponsors an official oversight role in helping to shape the organization’s research.

This report first examines CNAS’s major corporate and government donors, along with several mechanisms through which these donors likely exert influence on the think tank’s research agenda. Next, five case studies are presented in which CNAS has promoted the interests of its donors without proper disclosure: 1) supporting the US military’s use of private military contractors who donated to CNAS, 2) advocating for the preferred Afghanistan strategy of active-duty US military officials with close links to the Center, 3) making a deal with the UAE embassy for research calling for looser military drone export rules to the country, 4) advocating for additional purchases of jets produced by one of CNAS’ largest contributors, and 5) recommending policies on US-China relations which would benefit multiple CNAS donors. Finally, this report reviews CNAS figures in the Biden administration.

Business leaders and policy experts both possess a demonstrably outsized influence on US foreign policy-making, so financial relationships connecting these two parties are potentially quite problematic, especially when the policy experts later move on to public office through the “revolving door.” When the business community has such strong influence over a research institution, and that research institution plays a powerful role in staffing the government, it follows that the business community may have influence over government policymaking.

CNAS is far from alone among Washington think tanks engaging in questionable ethical behavior of the variety described in this report, and all such behavior merits greater scrutiny. But the scale and scope of conflicts of interest which appear in CNAS’s work further highlights serious concerns about political corruption as the US completes a historically troubled transition from an administration rife with conflicts of interest, and as President Biden brings in new staff to run the foreign policy and national security agendas of the world’s most powerful country.

Originally published at on February 10, 2021.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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