Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shift seen on role of military 'mentors'

By Orlin Wagner, AP

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised "dramatic changes" in how the Pentagon uses retired officers to advise the military, as he faced scathing criticism at a Senate committee Tuesday.

Gates ordered a Pentagonwide review by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn of the programs in December after a USA TODAY investigation found that retired officers could make far more money as "senior mentors" than they did as active-duty officers. In addition, those officers can collect pensions and work for contractors who sell to the Pentagon.

Gates said the changes are coming although Lynn's review is not done, adding that the mentors' experience is valued by the military.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Marine veteran in Vietnam, blasted the program. A senior mentor is being overpaid "basically to do what he's supposed to do anyway. And that is to fulfill the stewardship for having spent a career in the military," he said.

A lack of oversight means the program can be abused, Webb said. "They're hired as independent contractors so they're not subject to government ethics rules," he said. "They operate outside public scrutiny."

The programs, which can pay retired officers hundreds of dollars an hour, do not represent "the military I grew up in, and not the one you grew up in, admiral," Webb told Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Addressing Gates, Webb, a former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said: "And it's not the Pentagon I served in the 1980s."

If the Pentagon needs to save money, Webb said, it should trim funds from the mentor programs before cutting back on the number of troops.

Gates and Mullen appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify about the Obama administration's Pentagon budget proposal.

USA TODAY first reported on the programs in November, revealing that at least 158 retired officers have advised the military on various issues, including how to run military exercises. Of those mentors, 80% had ties to defense firms trying to sell products and services to the same military branches the retirees are advising. The revelations have led to three separate investigations: Lynn's, another by the Pentagon inspector general that was ordered by Congress, and a third by a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

McCaskill said Tuesday that she shared Webb's concerns. What USA TODAY found

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