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A Mutal Extortion Racket: How the American defence industry helps ensure arms exports are priortised over foreign US policy outcomes

20th December 2019

20th December, London – The complex web of murky pathways through which the American defense industry works to secure permission to export arms to repressive regimes in the Middle East has been laid bare in new research by Transparency International – Defence & Security.

A Mutual Extortion Racket: The Military Industrial Complex and US Foreign Policy reveals how defense industry players, elected officials, the defence bureaucracy, and governments in the Middle East – working through intermediaries such as lobbyists, think tanks, and public relations firms – are intertwined and serve one another’s interest, often at the expense of US foreign policy outcomes.

These mutually-beneficial relationships have contributed to a vicious cycle of conflict and human rights abuses across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including increased exports of arms and defence services to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which began under the Obama administration and has ramped up under President Trump.

Steve Francis OBE, Director of Transparency International – Defense & Security said:

“In the midst of the unending war in Yemen and after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, questions have been asked over why American arms exports to places like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not only continued, but accelerated. After examining the murky web of lobbying, campaign finance, revolving door employment, and sometimes even downright corruption, it is now clearer how these exports are allowed to continue, despite attempts by many in Congress to stem the flow.

“While much of the system that allows these exports to continue is riddled with a lack of transparency and oversight, there are some areas in which existing strengths can be amplified. We urge Congress and the Executive branch to adopt our recommendations and ensure that arms exports are better aligned with US foreign policy interests and the American defense industry no longer wields excessive influence over policymaking.”


The pathways which allow this ‘extortion racket’ to play out include:

  • Controversial sweeteners bolted on to defence contracts known as ‘offsets’

Despite rarely making economic sense, these side deals account for US$3 to $7 billion in obligations every year – and the lack of transparency around offsets means they are a notorious conduit for corruption.  A series of leaked emails in 2017 revealed that American defence firms were indirectly funding advocacy campaigns around drones which were friendly to the Saudi and Emirati governments. Money from the US companies was paid directly into an Emirati development fund which was eventually routed to a US think tank who created the campaigns.

  • Political campaign donations

‘Dark money’ groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest American business lobbying organization, are under no obligation to reveal their donors but can contribute to influence political campaigns, especially via so-called Super PACs. According to a defence lobbyist, the Chamber aims to move any discussion about US defense exports “straight down to dollars and jobs in a congressional district” to incentivise members of Congress not to take any steps that could impact arms sales.

  • The so-called ‘revolving door’ between high-level jobs in government and the military and senior roles with defense companies or lobbying firms.

After leaving Congress, Republican Howard McKeon set up a lobbying firm which boasts its status as “the only firm led by a former Chairman of two full congressional Committees”. McKeon signed as a registered foreign agent for the Saudi government in 2016 soon after setting up his firm. During his tenure as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, $10 billion in military sales were approved to Saudi Arabia – a doubling of previous sales to the country.

Rarely is just one of the pathways identified in the report is used and they are often intertwined to magnify influence towards desired policy outcomes.

Simply limiting lobbying and campaign finance contributions is necessary but not enough to rebalance the egregious flaws of this influence system. Our policy recommendations include:

  • Establish a ‘Defense Exports Czar’ on the National Security Council to oversee all aspects of security assistance, including defence exports, and assess whether exports align with larger US foreign policy goals.
  • Legislate a ban on offset contracts between the American defence industry and foreign governments.
  • Re-establish the State Department as the lead agency for all security assistance, including all defense exports, while Congress should demand more insight and transparency into these exports
  • Require all contractors and sub-contractors to list their beneficial owners to ensure contract funds are not funnelled to those tied to corrupt politicians, insurgents, terrorists, warlords or criminal actors.
  • Establish legislation to limit contributions to super PACs by the defense industry or its intermediaries and prevent anonymous donations; require defence firms to publicly disclose all donations or political activity over $10,000.


Notes to Editors:

The report is available to download here.

Transparency International’s newly-released Government Defence Integrity Index scores countries according to the risk of corruption in their defence institutions. Saudi Arabia was ranked F – indicating a critical risk – while the UAE was ranked E, indicating a very high risk.

The American arms industry is the largest in the world. In 2018, American companies were responsible for 57 percent of worldwide arms sales, totalling $226.6 billion.

The sector is also a major force in US manufacturing in employment. In 2017, 10 percent of the $2.22 trillion factory output went to produce weapons sold to the Defence department.

Between 2012 and 2015, the US exported 46 percent of all arms delivered to the Middle East. In 2016, 35 of the 57 arms sales proposed were to countries in the MENA region.



Interviews are available with the report author.

Harvey Gavin

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