WILMINGTON, Delaware: US President-elect Joe Biden leaves the Queen Theater after announcing the members of his health policy team, including his pick for secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, on Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware. - AFP

WASHINGTON: US President-elect Joe Biden didn't go far for his choice of defense secretary: former army general Lloyd Austin came from the same inside-the-Beltway consultants as Biden's secretary of state, intelligence chief and White House communications head. Biden's recruitment of at least a half-dozen people from a single high-powered firm, WestExec Advisors, to run his foreign and security policies, has raised new questions about Washington's much-derided revolving door of influence peddlers.

Biden has tapped WestExec co-founder Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state; Avril Haines for director of national intelligence; Jen Psaki as communications chief; and others on his transition team. The president-elect made official on Tuesday his choice of retired four star general Austin, a partner in WestExec's investment unit, Pine Island Capital Partners. Blinken is also a Pine Island investor, as is the woman Austin beat out for the Pentagon job, WestExec co-founder Michele Flournoy. And according to reports, WestExec's David Cohen is the frontrunner to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

After four years of President Donald Trump's administration being repeatedly accused of using government for personal profit, Biden's turn to a company with close defense industry ties has raised the same kinds of questions. "The onus is now on the Biden administration and these nominees to show that they will take careful steps to avoid conflicts of interest," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I hope that the next administration learns the right lessons" from Trump's near-total disregard for conflict-of-interest standards, he said.

Road to the Situation Room
WestExec was created in 2017 as a home for top officials newly jobless after serving the 2009-2017 administration of Democratic president Barack Obama. It offered "strategic advisory" services to companies wanting to tap the former Obama people's experience at the heart of military and national security policy. The group named itself for the short road, West Executive Avenue, that passes between the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where most White House staff work.

West Executive Ave "is, quite literally, the road to the Situation Room, and it is the road everyone associated with WestExec Advisors has crossed many times en route to meetings of the highest national security consequence," their website reads. For many it sounds like the incestuous world of Washington lobbyists-Beltway insiders with lavish budgets to open doors to persuade officials and legislators to change rules or allocate funds for their clients.

Because of strict rules born of decades of corruption and influence peddling, lobbyists have to publicly reveal their clients. But so-called strategic consultants like WestExec do not have to, because at least officially they are supposed to keep a distance from officials and lawmakers. They provide clients the lay of the land, telling them how to navigate policies and officialdom without taking them through the process.

WestExec, though, is believed to have had a host of wealthy clients in the defense and security sectors. The American Prospect and The New York Times have identified among its customers drone maker Shield AI, which has a Pentagon contract; Schmidt Futures, controlled by Google former CEO Eric Schmidt; and Israeli artificial intelligence firm Windward. Pine Island, meanwhile, raised $283 million for investments, putting some of the money into defense manufacturers.

The WestExec officials all bring strong, technocratic resumes to their new positions. But the issue is appearances. Austin, for example, is also on the board of one of the Pentagon's largest arms suppliers, Raytheon. "OH COME ON. A General and Raytheon board? Possibly the worst of all options," tweeted Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Richard Painter, a White House ethics lawyer in the 2000s, said the lack of transparency by strategic consultants is a serious problem.

"Loopholes like this one flourished in the Trump era and must be closed. Client names must at least be disclosed to ethics officials if not publicly," he said in tweeted comments. Bookbinder said that the turn by many Washington insiders to strategic consultancies rather than traditional lobby houses "is not a particularly great development for transparency." But the test will be if, unlike the Trump administration, Biden has officials make disclosures, divest and recuse themselves when their interests appear conflicted. "We're going to be watching carefully," he said. - AFP