Senate Warned About Losing Civilian Control of Defense Dept.

January 13, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
The number of known military installations with water sources contaminated by cancer-linked firefighting foam is likely to rise, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Expert witnesses described a deeply troubled Defense Department at a Senate hearing Tuesday as Congress tries to decide whether to approve a new leader for the U.S. military.

They said the Defense Department has fallen victim to political partisanship and mismanagement that they hope President-elect Joe Biden’s recommended appointee will resolve.

Biden wants retired four-star General Lloyd Austin to become the new U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The problem confronted at the Senate hearing was whether the recently-retired Austin represents the kind of civilian leadership required under federal law.

“This could lead to a larger problem,” Lindsay P. Cohn, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told the Senate committee.

Under the National Security Act of 1947, anyone appointed as Secretary of Defense must have left their military jobs no less than seven years before the appointment. In other words, they should be considered civilians.

Austin retired from the Army in 2016. Biden wants the Senate to give him a waiver from the seven-year National Security Act requirement, saying his excellent credentials make him uniquely qualified as Secretary of Defense.

A goal of the federal law is to ensure that Defense Department secretaries are less likely to assign key positions to their former colleagues in the military, many of whom would have moved on to other jobs after seven years.

Civilian control is supposed to make certain the Defense Department serves the public interest rather than the interests of the military, Cohn said.

“For those in the military, it is natural to approach a fight with overwhelming force,” Cohn said.

Politicians, similar to a Secretary of Defense, should approach conflicts with diplomacy to resolve disputes, she said.

If the Senate votes to confirm Austin’s appointment, he would be the second Secretary of Defense to be granted a waiver since 2017.

The other was James Mattis, who served as defense secretary for two years until Jan. 1, 2019. He was appointed to the job only four years after retiring from a 44-year career in the Marine Corps.

During his tenure as the military’s political leader, he was criticized for hiring other military commanders rather than civilians. He also was accused of running the Defense Department to support President Donald Trump but sometimes neglecting other political concerns.

Cohn did not dispute that Austin was well-qualified based on his career and philanthropic efforts after he left the Army. She also agreed that his role as an African American created a good image of diversity within the military.

Her concern, which was shared by several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was what she described as a disturbing trend away from civilian leadership.

“I don’t think it’s good to encourage the trend,” she said.

Kathleen J. McInnis, an international security specialist for the Congressional Research Service, said improving the Defense Department’s non-military political response to its challenges has taken on greater importance by recent events.

They have included the growth of China’s military, hostility from the Russians, resources diverted by the COVID-19 pandemic and insurrections like the riot at the Capitol last week.

“Those tasks are a tall order for anybody,” McInnis said.

A purely military response might not be appropriate but some Defense Department personnel have failed to deviate from their armed services course of action, she said.

“The civilian voices are relatively muted now,” McInnis said.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said Austin’s military and private sector career success presented the Senate with a dilemma on whether to grant him a waiver from the seven-year civilian requirement.

“This is such an easy case and such a hard one,” Kaine said.

Since retiring from the Army, Austin has served as a board member for military contractor Raytheon Technologies, steel producer Nucor Corp. and medical firm Tenet Healthcare. He also is a partner in the investment company Pine Island Capital.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he hoped the Defense Department would revert to a non-partisan political stance rather than showing biases.

He blamed Trump for Defense Department appointments “based on the appearance of loyalty to the president rather than the caliber of their qualifications.”

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