• Mentors operate outside public scrutiny. Although the services have released broad pay rates, most won't say how much individual mentors have been paid, and one, the Missile Defense Agency, declined to release any names. Other services released some names but couldn't say the lists were complete. USA TODAY identified many mentors by scouring military documents and other public records.
• In some cases, mentors also work for weapons-makers who have an interest in the military planning the mentors are assisting. A Marines exercise last year, which explored how to launch operations from ships, employed mentors who also had financial relationships with companies that sell products designed to aid those operations.
"This setup invites abuse," says Janine Wedel, a George Mason University public policy professor and author of a forthcoming book on government contracting. "Everyone in this story is fat and happy. Everyone, of course, except the public, which has virtually no way of knowing what's going on, much less holding these guys to account."
If retired generals advising the Pentagon also are "being paid by somebody who wants to make money off the government, I think it's important the public know that," says Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs the subcommittee on contracting oversight. "The reason ... is so the people have confidence that the decisions are being made based on merit, and not based on inside baseball."
Marine Gen. James Mattis is the commander of Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, which pays at least 34 senior mentors to train active-duty generals and admirals. He confirms that mentors who also work for defense clients may pick up information that benefits their private employer, but he believes that's the only way to ensure that top experts are teaching officers.
"If your concern is that we're exposing them to things that would allow them to have an advantage for their company, I doubt if that can be refuted," Mattis says. "I believe that's a reality. The only way to not have that would be to have either amateurs on their boards of directors, or amateurs in our thing."
Imposing "an assumption of distrust and firewalls," could sour retired generals on the mentoring program, Mattis says. "Ultimately it comes down to trust."
'Way below industry average'
Mentors say they police themselves and would never abuse their positions.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, 66, served as a mentor for a Joint Forces strategy exercise last year. "If it ever came across that you were pitching a product (as a mentor), I don't think you'd ever be invited back," he says.
Zinni, who retired in 2000 as chief of U.S. Central Command, is chairman of the board of BAE Systems, a large U.S. defense contractor. He had been executive vice president for Dyncorp International, another major defense firm, which paid him $946,000 last year, securities records show. Zinni is eligible for an annual pension of about $129,000, according to military formulas.
"Obviously it informs how you think about things," he says. "I don't think you can deny that. But sometimes your involvement in the defense industry is exactly what they're looking for beyond your military experience."