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Biden Is Already Loading His Pentagon Transition Team With Pro-War Think Tank Staffers

It hasn’t taken long for Joe Biden to get down to the business of preparing to assume the presidency — by drawing staff from hawkish think tanks financed by arms companies.

Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden on September 9, 2020 in Warren, Michigan. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

In July 2019, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden declared in a foreign policy speech, “It’s past time to end the Forever Wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” But the president-elect — who, as vice president, oversaw wars in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and more — is already embracing personnel with strong ties to the military apparatus driving this endless combat.

On November 10, Biden announced his agency review teams, which he says “are responsible for understanding the operations of each agency, ensuring a smooth transfer of power, and preparing for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris and their cabinet to hit the ground running on Day One.”

Of the twenty-three people who comprise the Department of Defense agency review team, eight of them — or just over a third — list their “most recent employment” as organizations, think tanks, or companies that either directly receive money from the weapons industry, or are part of this industry. These figures may be an undercount, as the writer was not immediately able to exhaustively source the funding of every employer.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is listed as the “most recent employment” of three individuals on Biden’s Department of Defense agency review team: Kathleen Hicks (a former defense official under President Barack Obama), Melissa Dalton, and Andrew Hunter. CSIS is a hawkish and influential foreign policy think tank that receives funding from General Dynamics Corporation, Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and other weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, as well as oil companies.

Raytheon is a key supplier of bombs to the US-Saudi war in Yemen, and has aggressively lobbied to prevent any curbs on arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. Among the weapons that Northrop Grumman manufactures are drones, which have been used by the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, among other locations. Notably, a New York Times investigation in 2016 found that, based on a cache of email leaks, CSIS was effectively doubling as a weapons industry lobbying firm, pushing for expanded drone sales. Lockheed Martin is a key contractor for the THAAD missile system in South Korea — a system that CSIS has also advocated for without disclosing their conflict of interest. The company also manufactured the bomb that struck a school bus in Northern Yemen in August 2018, killing at least twenty-six children.

CSIS also receives money from a host of governments, including the United States, as well as the United Arab Emirates, which has joined with the United States and Saudi Arabia to wage war on Yemen. CSIS, in addition, receives money from the state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, which effectively amounts to a donation from the Saudi government.

Two of the individuals named for Biden’s Department of Defense agency review team — Ely Ratner and Susanna Blume — list the think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) as their most recent employer. CNAS takes a significant chunk of its money from Northrop Grumman, as well as the US State Department ($500,000 or more per year on both counts), and from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and a host of corporations, including oil companies.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris drew heavily from CNAS to advise her presidential primary campaign. The think tank is known for embracing conventional, pro-war foreign policy, as well as escalation toward Russia and China.

Three people from the team — Stacie Pettyjohn, Terri Tanielian, and Christine Wormuth (also a former defense official under Obama) — hail from the RAND Corporation, a hawkish think tank that receives significant funding from the US Army and the Department of Homeland Security. (These individuals are not being included in the tally of people who work for organizations funded by the arms industry, but nonetheless, their involvement shows the political bent of Biden’s Department of Defense transition team.)

“It’s telling the think tanks represented here — RAND, CSIS, and CNAS — are among the top recipients of Department of Defense and Department of Defense contractor funding,” says Ben Freeman of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which recently authored a report on think tank funding. “CNAS and CSIS are literally number one and number two in terms of donations received from US defense contractors in the last six years. RAND is, by far, the top recipient of Department of Defense funding of any think tank.”

Sharon Burke, on Biden’s team, works for New America, which calls itself a “national network of innovative problem-solvers.” The organization receives funding from Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and US Army War College.

Shawn Skelly’s most recent employer is listed by the Biden team as CACI International, which provides information technology for US military weapons systems. (Because Skelly’s LinkedIn page says she worked at CACI until November 2020, we are including her in the tally of people who receive money from or are employed by the weapons industry, given the relevance to her present finances.) Before Skelly started working there, CACI was sued by Iraqis formerly detained in the notorious US military prison Abu Ghraib, on the grounds that the contractor played a direct role in their torture. (The lawsuit is still ongoing.)

Victor Garcia lists Rebellion Defense as his most recent employer. This software company says it helps “our defense and national security agencies unlock the power of data across all domains.” It was founded by former defense officials and “analyzes video gathered via drone,” according to the New York Times.

Of those remaining, one team member works for JPMorgan Chase & Co., another is retired from the State Department, a few work for universities and other organizations, and one works for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which says it strives to “prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption — nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical and cyber.” Lisa Coe, also on the team, lists as her most recent employer OtherSide Consulting, a defense industry consultant, according to Defense News. However, because we were unable to independently verify this, Coe is not being included in our count of team members funded by the military or weapons industry.

Farooq Mitha, also a member of the Department of Defense team, is on the board of Emgage, which has garnered criticism for its affiliation with anti-Palestinian organizations.

The news prompted disappointment from anti-war groups. “Biden building a team of people with connections to weapons manufacturers and the military industrial complex is a prime example of how militarism and imperialism are bipartisan,” says Sidney Miralao, an organizer with Dissenters, a group of young people who oppose US militarism and the war industry. “Democrats and Republicans alike perpetuate and profit off of war and violence in our communities at home and abroad. By continuing the legacy of the revolving door with the defense industry, Biden and his team are setting themselves up to be able to continue growing the military and strengthening the narrative that war is necessary to safety.”

While campaigning, Biden made some overtures to the surging left wing that nearly catapulted Bernie Sanders to the Democratic nomination, forming a unity task force with Sanders backers that issued a series of recommendations, from climate to labor. Yet these efforts to reach out to the Left largely omitted issues of war and militarism, leaving critics of US aggression concerned that a Biden administration would bring a continuation of the wars he’s supported throughout his career. Biden played an influential role in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, has been a career-long supporter of Israel’s aggression toward Palestinians, and has defended the open-ended occupation of Afghanistan, among other acts.

Outgoing president Donald Trump, for his part, hoisted people with close ties to the arms industry into prominent Department of Defense positions, appointing Mark Esper, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, to the position of secretary of defense. (Trump fired Esper and a number of other senior military officials in recent days, in what appears to be a sign of Trump’s effort to stay in power despite losing the presidential election.)

“Has Biden already forgotten who put him in the position he’s in?” says Ramón Mejía, anti-militarism national organizer with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, an alliance of community organizations. “The only reason he’s president-elect is because Black, Brown, Indigenous youth mobilized to vote out Trump’s fascism. Biden shouldn’t make the mistake that Democrats are commonly known to make, which is to abandon the same people who put them there.”

“War-making and corporate profiteering is a non-starter,” Mejía adds. “We must divest the bulk of our budget from a war-fueling extractive economy, and prioritize investing in a life-sustaining regenerative economy.”