In 2018, when the government awarded a massive $769 million contract to Alion Science and Technology, a defense contractor, the company promised that the money would go to “cutting edge” intelligence and technological solutions “that directly support the warfighter.”
The Alion contract supports work from the Remote Sensing Center, an intelligence hub that assists the military with ground, maritime, and airborne intelligence. Much of the work, records show, went to subcontractors such as Venntel, a firm that hoovers up location data from smartphones, and Leidos, a technology firm that services a variety of weapons systems and intelligence agencies.
But part of the money embedded in that contract also flowed to the nation’s foremost hawkish think tanks, which routinely advocate for higher Pentagon budgets and a greater projection of America’s military force.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, and the Pacific Forum are just two of the independent research institutes that were given parts of the $769 million to Alion Science as subcontractors. (The others — the Russia Research Network Limited, Center for Advanced China Research, and Center for European Policy Analysis — are less prominent.) The indirect funding, channeled through a contract meant for advancing the government’s warfighting ability, is unusual among the many Pentagon grants that flow to research institutes.
Jack Poulson, the founder of Tech Inquiry, a watchdog group that spotted the contract, noted that the commingling of projects appeared to be “blurring the lines between think tanks and intelligence contractors.”
Federal records show that Alion awarded CSIS money from its intelligence contract from December of last year through July 2021.
Andrew Schwartz, a spokesperson for CSIS, which received just under $1 million from the Alion intelligence contract, wrote in an email that the funding was used “to help U.S. government analysts–including but not limited to military personnel–better understand Russian decision-making processes, climate-impacts on security in the Arctic, African security issues including China’s deepening ties to the African security sector, and homeland security threats including cyber.”
“These were five separate projects that all used Alion as the funding vehicle,” said Schwartz. Schwartz did not respond when asked to share the specific work products related to the Alion contract or explain why these projects were funded through an intelligence contract designed to enhance warfighting capability.
CSIS produces extensive research on the topics listed by Schwartz, including recent reports that detail the purported need for the U.S. military to engage in the Arctic and to counter China’s influence in Africa. Neither report makes mention of any Alion funding.
CSIS officials frequently testify on Capitol Hill and in public forums on the need to promote military spending efforts. In a recent New York Times article on the congressional fight over military spending levels following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, one CSIS director cautioned that despite the shift in U.S. policy, “the military element of national power also should not be diminished.”
In July, Alion Science and Technology was acquired by Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder and one of the largest defense firms in the world. The company declined to comment on its ties to think tanks or how the intelligence contract has been used.
The Pacific Forum did not respond to a request for comment. The organization received $586,555 from the Alion contract. The Pacific Forum has pushed aggressively for greater missile defense and naval spending.
The Defense Department also did not respond to a media inquiry.
The Alion grant is unusual in the way in which it channels a “warfighting” contract through a proxy defense contractor to a research institute. But many prominent think tanks rely on direct Defense Department contracts, a relationship that presents a similar conflict of interest.
The arrangement of a defense contractor sharing a military-focused contract with think tanks provides a small window into the larger world of Defense Department funding of the most prominent voices in the military policy establishment. The public-facing descriptions of military contracts to think tanks are almost always vague; sometimes they are totally opaque.
The Hudson Institute is another hawkish think tank that heavily relies on Pentagon funding. The group has recently pushed for “lead-ahead advancements like stealth aircraft” to compete with China and a greater focus on cyber warfare capabilities. The group received a $356,263 contract directly from the Pentagon this year to produce a “final report/brief” on aircraft defense. Last year, the group received nearly half a million dollars to produce reports and workshops on behalf of the Defense Department.
The Center for a New American Security, a think tank that testified before Congress this year to press for more funding for advanced battlefield military technology and a greater focus on weapons that could be used for a confrontation with China, has received at least $1.1 million in Pentagon funding.
Shai Korman, a spokesperson for the Center for a New American Security, said in an email that the group maintains complete intellectual independence and notes that it receives government funding on its website, but did not respond when asked to explain which particular CNAS projects are supported by the Defense Department.
The role of think tanks in the policy debate cannot be underestimated. Since the mid-20th century, independent-appearing academic centers, often with opaque sources of funding and an ideological bent, have played an outsized role in advising Congress and federal agencies on major policy priorities. Media outlets often lean on think tank opinion when seeking expert opinion. And given that think tank officials rarely register as lobbyists, they are seen as politically neutral experts who are hired to work within various presidential administrations.
The flow of military money has warped the public debate over Pentagon funding levels and U.S. policy, critics warn.
“With so many think tanks getting a slice of the Pentagon budget, it’s not surprising that the Washington think tank choir sings the Pentagon’s praises.”
“With so many think tanks getting a slice of the Pentagon budget, it’s not surprising that the Washington think tank choir sings the Pentagon’s praises,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, a research institute that does not accept military funding.
“At the very least, think tanks receiving large sums of funding directly from the Pentagon or its contractors should make that abundantly clear in their written products and at speaking engagements,” added Freeman.
Last year, the Center for International Policy reviewed the top 50 think tanks in the country. The report found extensive ties between the Pentagon and military contractors with the most influential think tanks, and recommended greater disclosure. CSIS, the report notes, received over $5 million in government and defense contractor funding from 2014 to 2019.
“Hiding potential conflicts of interest in Congressional testimony or in think tanks’ published work leaves the public and policymakers with the impression that they’re reading unbiased research or hearing from a truly objective expert, when in fact they may be listening to someone whose work is being financed by an organization with an immense financial stake in the topic of that research,” wrote Freeman, the author of the report.
Only a few major foreign policy and military-focused think tanks provided full transparency or rejected military support. Human Rights Watch, notably, released a statement that the group “doesn’t take money from governments because we report on them and it could create the perception of bias or that our independence was compromised. In a similar vein, we work to prohibit land mines, cluster munitions, and killer robots, so we wouldn’t want to take money from companies that make these types of weaponry.”
But there is growing pressure on think tanks to do more to sever ties with foreign funders, provide greater disclosure, and proactively identify potential areas of conflict of interest.
“Advocating for increased Pentagon budgets while receiving funding from the Pentagon poses a clear conflict of interest that should be disclosed in institutional products advocating for defense budget hikes,” said Eli Clifton, a senior adviser at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of a recent report on restoring trust in think tanks.