War and Peace - and Numerous Conflicts of Interest

Guest blogger Gin Armstrong laments that the media often fails to mention ties between the defense industry and think tanks in the context of national security debates. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

During the course of only one month in summer 2013, seven prominent think tanks were cited 144 times in major US publications in the context of ongoing debates about whether the US should intervene in Syria.

My colleagues and I at the Public Accountability Initiative found that the media was dominated by defense industry-backed individuals and institutions, the majority of whom either did not disclose their industry ties or, in the case of analysts from think tanks, did not disclose funding their institutions received from the industry.

The Brookings Institution, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and The Institute for the Study of War were the most cited think tanks from our dataset:

  • Experts with The Brookings Institution were cited in 31 articles on Syria in our dataset, more than any other think tank. Brookings is an influential think tank that is presented in the media as an independent authority, yet it receives millions in funding from the defense industry, including USD 1-2.5 million from Booz Allen Hamilton and USD 50,000-100,000 from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Palantir Technologies. Brookings Executive Education’s Advisory Council Chair, Ronald Sanders, is a Vice President and Senior Fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies was cited in 30 articles on Syria. CSIS has ample individual connections to the defense industry through its advisors and trustees, including CSIS Senior Advisor Margaret Sidney Ashworth, who is Corporate Vice President for Government Relations at Northrop Grumman, and CSIS Advisor Thomas Culligan, who is Senior Vice President at Raytheon. CSIS President and CEO John Hamre is a Director for defense contractor SAIC
  • Analysts representing The Institute for the Study of War were cited in 22 articles on Syria in our dataset. A Wall Street Journal op-ed by former ISW Senior Research Analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy was cited by Secretary John Kerry and Senator John McCain during congressional hearings in their effort to justify intervention. ISW’s “Corporate Council” represents a who’s who of the defense industry and includes Raytheon, SAIC, Palantir, General Dynamics, CACI, Northrop Grumman, DynCorp, and L-3 Communication. ISW’s ties to these companies were not disclosed in O’Bagy’s article.

We found that a think tank’s level of transparency did not affect its analysts’ inclusion in and influence over debates on military intervention in Syria. Notably the controversy that eventually surrounded Elizabeth O’Bagy’s influential Wall Street Journal op-ed did not include criticism of The Institute for the Study of War or the newspaper for not disclosing the think tank’s extensive ties to the defense industry.

When it comes to important debates on national security, defense, and conflict intervention, transparency and disclosure must be demanded as a matter of public interest. 

Gin Armstrong is a research analyst at the Public Accountability Initiative. A complete review of all the think tanks profiled is provided in PAI’s October 2013 report on “Conflicts of Interest in the Syria Debate”.