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Wondering about all the retired generals led Boston Globe’s Bender to great story

In his daily beat coverage at the Pentagon, the Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender noticed that retired generals didn’t disappear to the golf course after hanging up their uniforms. Instead, they were sticking around, this time in the suits of businessmen.

General Gregory "Speedy" Martin, Ret. US Air Force

General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin, a retired four-star general, was in demand from private industry after a 35-year career in the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Jerry Fleshman)

Bender is a Loeb Award finalist this year for his story, “From the Pentagon to the Private Sector,” and said just being observant of possible trends in your beat can lead to bigger ideas.

He analyzed 750 three- and four-star retired military generals in his story, which took eight months to finish, and ultimately revealed the Pentagon’s own revolving door wherein retired generals were being hired by defense companies as consultants. And Bender said it all started with his own observations and curiosity.

“The idea generated from covering the Pentagon over recent years where I noticed what seemed to be more retired generals just kind of around, and almost all of them seemed to be working for one private company or another,” Bender said. “It was anecdotal.”

From Bender’s From the Pentagon to the private sector

“An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin returned to his quarters to swap his dress uniform for golf attire. He was ready for his first tee time as a retired four-star general.”

Bender pegged his idea on the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. The five-star general warned of the powerful permanent arms industry unlike the country had ever seen, and he and his aides worried how generals retiring and working for private defense companies would impact democracy.

“His warning was, we need to be aware of this because there may be some power there that may be unchecked,” Bender said. “This powerful industry has this political clout as well as spending power.”

To determine if Bender’s anecdotal observations of this trend were accurate, he, a researcher and a couple of editors who were involved with the story almost daily, needed numbers.

They requested from all four military branches lists of their three- and four-star generals who had retired since 1990, a time when military spending was at historical highs. They then created a database that showed where each went after retiring.

“We got this striking growth of them going from the military to the private industry,” Bender said. “The defense industry has swallowed some of the most senior officers in the military.”

The generals advise the companies on how to pitch their latest weapons or technology to the military for purchase, much the same as Congressional aides go to work for lobbying firms. In some cases they were still being called in by the Pentagon to advise on specialized areas, creating what Bender called, “the potential for insider trading.”

They began to contact some of the retirees directly to put a face on the story rather than simply writing about the numbers, Bender said.

Some didn’t want to talk at all, some would only verify information in their documents, and some who did want to talk left Bender with the impression that this was so common nobody thought twice about it.

The consulting companies doing the hiring were even more unwilling to talk, with no response to dozens of Bender’s requests. Being private companies, they are not under the same obligation as public companies to file information about themselves, meaning he had to rely even more heavily on the generals to provide information.

“It became this accepted process and nobody asked if it was a good thing or a bad thing,” Bender said. “One of the common responses (from generals) was, ‘I’ve been doing this for 40 years, this is what I know.’ ”

Bender also looked at ethics guidelines, or any rules that were in place to dictate behavior of retired generals, and he found that many of these hadn’t been updated in years to account for this new trend. Many generals said they were unprepared for the onslaught.

“The extent to which the military and defense industry had become intertwined and arguably even more of a complex is far greater and far tighter a connection that it was several decades ago,” Bender said. “Some generals would describe retiring and feeling almost like it was an NFL draft from defense companies offering what their new career could be.”

Most reporters will find it difficult to spend eight months on a story, and many newspapers no longer have the resources to provide a researcher who can help create this type of extensive database.

“I credit my editors for seeing this as something different and new and worth investing in me, a researcher, and a couple of editors,” Bender said. “There was an understanding from the get-go that this would take some time and was worth a few months.”

The techniques Bender used to gain information and create a peg for a historical idea can be applied to other types of stories, and finding that peg can be the life or death of a story.

In ASU Biz Journalism, Featured.

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