Why does Michael Bloomberg want to control the Pentagon’s private club for Silicon Valley?
There’s no way for the public to know, at least for now. On February 9th, the Defense Department announced that Bloomberg—the multibillionaire financial-information mogul, former Republican mayor of New York City, and 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate for 101 days—was the nominee to chair the Defense Innovation Board. Bloomberg said he’d bring “new ideas and outside perspective that can help protect Americans and our values, interests, and allies around the world.”
It’s a seemingly bizarre fit for Bloomberg, who is known politically for his keen interest in environmental capitalism and market-based policies, but not for strong views on the U.S. military. I was curious if Bloomberg’s billions of dollars in investments might shed any light on his sudden interest in the Pentagon, so I looked up his financial disclosures from the 2020 Democratic primary.
It turns out, they don’t exist. Running a search for Bloomberg’s forms in the Office of Government Ethics’ (OGE) disclosure lookup system doesn’t return any results.
A Federal Election Commission official confirmed to the Prospect that Bloomberg never actually filed his required financial disclosure forms—which, due to the Swiss cheese texture of American ethics law, is fully legal. Recall that Bloomberg was only in the race for four months. Candidates are required to file their disclosures with the FEC 30 days after entering, but Bloomberg requested and received two extensions, citing the complexity of his sprawling investments. When he dropped out, so too did his legal obligation to disclose his finances. According to the FEC, Bloomberg’s final deadline to submit his financial disclosures was March 20, 2020. He dropped out on March 4th.
The OGE system also doesn’t return results for former candidates Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper, and Mike Gravel. Hickenlooper and Swalwell are both current members of Congress, however, so even more up-to-date disclosures are readily available for both. Gravel passed away last year.
This means that there’s no easy way for the public to determine if Bloomberg, out of the whole unusually large 2020 candidate slate, has any direct financial conflicts of interest should he receive the highest position on the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board.
The Board was created in 2016 as a pipeline linking Silicon Valley and Arlington in order to facilitate tech-dependent defense initiatives. In practice, this has meant that companies which are actively bidding for Pentagon contracts get an easy path for their C-suite executives to have face time with Pentagon leadership. The Board is perhaps best known for issuing a department-wide guidance on proper use of artificial intelligence (mainly, to buy more of it).
That report was former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s proudest achievement on the Board, which he led for its first four years. During his tenure, Schmidt received unheard-of carte blanche access to senior Defense Department personnel and sites. As the Capitol Forum and ProPublica showed in a 2020 investigation, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis allowed Schmidt to come and go as he pleased from the Pentagon, talk to almost anyone he liked, and even to use a private jet on the DOD’s dime. When a Pentagon official started asking questions about all of this favoritism, Schmidt threatened to complain about her to the defense secretary, and her superior officer later told her “Mr. Schmidt was a billionaire and would not accept pushback, warnings, or limits,” according to a DOD grievance document reviewed by the Capitol Forum and ProPublica.
Since Schmidt left Google in 2011, he’s invested heavily in military tech startups seeking Pentagon contracts. Unsurprisingly, he’s also become a public evangelist for massive military investments in the tech sector, especially in artificial intelligence. After Google staff revolted against Project Maven, a contract to use Google’s image recognition technology to help the Pentagon identify bombing targets, Schmidt seethed to the media.
Bloomberg shared Schmidt’s anger when Google employees decided they didn’t feel comfortable letting algorithms determine the fate of civilians trapped in America’s wars. He wrote an op-ed for his eponymous publication in 2018, noting that Project Maven was “intended in large part to help the military avoid accidentally striking noncombatants and civilian infrastructure.” Because when has a technology ever been used for a different purpose than the stated one, especially in the military? He continued, “One of the roles of senior management is to do the right thing, even if it provokes criticism,” while frowning that “from Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of a mass-murdering terrorist to Project Maven, tech firms have repeatedly snubbed law-enforcement, intelligence and defense agencies.”
Bloomberg is a businessman who built a financial-information leviathan, then became one of the most authoritarian mayors in New York history. He is not an AI scientist or ethicist, unlike the Googlers who resigned and protested Project Maven. But no one ever became a billionaire—or head of the Defense Innovation Board—by being humble.
As part of this nomination, it is an absolute minimum requirement for Bloomberg to immediately provide Congress and the public with his full financial investment information, which they should have gotten two years ago. Bloomberg’s defenders might say that it seems unlikely he has investments in the weapons industry, given his philanthropic support for gun safety legislation. But financial hypocrisy has never been a problem to Bloomberg.
He is one of the world’s most prominent supporters of green financial development—and also holds massive investments in the fossil fuel industry. As The Intercept pointed out in 2020, Bloomberg’s investment adviser Steven Rattner has said on numerous occasions that he is a “natural gas bull,” even taking to Bloomberg TV to declare: “We invest a lot in the energy sector, so we have a dog in this fight … we’ve certainly been on the more bullish side of the argument on oil and continue to be.” A representative from Rattner’s firm Willett Advisors could not be reached for comment.
It would also be nothing new for a corporate titan with a financial stake in the business of war to lead the Defense Innovation Board—indeed, that’s kind of the whole point. And really, we all ought to take a step back and ask why the Pentagon needs a special club for tech barons in the first place.
PHOTO CREDIT: “Michael Bloomberg” by Gage Skidmore is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.