Pentagon exodus extends 'concerning,' 'baffling' trend of acting officials in key roles

The Pentagon has seen an exodus of top officials this month, prompting concerns from lawmakers and experts alike as the Defense Department struggles to fill roles ahead of a contentious election year that will leave little room for staffing critical jobs.

Within seven days the department experienced the departure of five civilian policymakers, continuing a bleeding of staff the Trump administration has been having trouble keeping up with.

Though the Senate on Thursday night confirmed three Department of Defense (DOD) nominees – Lisa Hershman to be chief management officer, Dana Deasy to be chief information officer and Robert Sander to be Navy general counsel – the administration has to overcome a limited bench of talent and a slowed down confirmation process in the Senate in refilling roles that have been recently vacated, staffed on an acting basis or empty for months.

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The sheer number of open positions and roles filled on an acting basis, is “definitely concerning,” said Alice Hunt Friend a former defense official now an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While the Pentagon bureaucracy is large enough to keep the lights on, officials holding roles in an acting capacity “often do not have the resources to make really critical decisions when changes need to be made or when the bureaucracy needs to respond to the outside world,” she told The Hill.

Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerPentagon exodus extends ‘concerning,’ ‘baffling’ trend of acting officials in key roles Republican group asks ‘what is Trump hiding’ in Times Square billboard Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill MORE (R-Ill.) told The Hill that he was “baffled” by length of time numerous officials have been in an acting role. 

“The job of an acting should be temporary only until a suitable replacement is found. I’m baffled as to why so may acting have become acting permanently. I hope that is addressed in short order,” Kinzinger said.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedPentagon exodus extends ‘concerning,’ ‘baffling’ trend of acting officials in key roles Overnight Defense: Senate sends 8B defense bill to Trump | Bill establishes Space Force, federal paid parental leave | House approves .4T spending package Senate sends 8B defense bill to Trump’s desk MORE (D-R.I.) told Defense News last week that the recent spate of departures reflects a larger “dysfunction” and “hollowing out” of the Pentagon.

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DOD’s top ranks have become increasingly empty in recent weeks thanks to the departure of six top officials in the past month, starting with the late November ouster of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

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The others include the Dec. 12 notification that top Asia policy official Randall Schriver would leave after two years on the job; the Dec. 13 announcement that head of personnel and readiness Jimmy Stewart had resigned after taking the role in October 2018; the Dec. 16 departure of senior adviser for international cooperation Amb. Tina Kaidanow following her September 2018 start date; the Dec. 17 report that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency leader Steven Walker will leave in January; and the Dec. 18 news that Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Kari Bingen submitted her resignation on Dec. 5 and will leave Jan. 10.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper – who shortly after his July confirmation said there needs to be “stable leadership” in the building and pledged to fill the holes –  last week downplayed the departures.

“You’ll probably see another couple of — some more announcements are coming up soon,” Esper said on Monday while flying back to the U.S. from Belgium.

He added that the exits were part of a “rhythm” of Washington and were “a normal rotation” that happens every year, but said it’s important to “get people in place as quickly as possible. If not confirmed, at least acting,” and keep moving the Pentagon forward.

While Friend said it’s common to see high level political appointees leave after roughly 18 months – especially after the end of the year “when people start to take stock” – another factor at play may be the upcoming election.

“There’s one more year left in the administration and if you’re an appointee and you’re making calculations – ‘is there some probability that I would leave anyway?’ That’s totally normal,” she noted.

In addition, several policy makers may have discovered they just aren’t a good fit six months into Esper’s time as Pentagon chief.

“Because they’re scattered all over DOD, my spidey sense does not give me a ‘something is going on that’s systematic’ signal,” Friend said.  

What’s concerning, however, is six of the 21 deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy positions are now vacant and numerous others are held on an acting basis, she said.

“The reason you want presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed people in those positions is because people in an acting capacity do not have the same authority and political clout within the administration as somebody appointed by the administration would have. They simply cannot do as much,” Friend said.  

The Senate is also set to be occupied in the coming year by impeachment proceedings against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rails against windmills: ‘I never understood wind’ Trump faces pivotal year with Russia on arms control Bolton says he doesn’t think Trump admin ‘really means it’ on stopping North Korea nukes MORE, slowing down nominees’ pipeline to the Pentagon.

Friend said she believes that while the Senate Armed Services Committee will find time to vote people out of committee a contentious nominee may slow things down or becomes a complete nonstarter during impeachment proceedings, with lawmakers increasingly distracted by other matters.

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If the Senate doesn’t take up three pending nominations for top Pentagon roles before the end of the year, for example, the administration will have to renominate the potential appointees, lengthening time until those roles are filled.  

Another legitimate staffing problem is the limited availability of top talent thanks to numerous “Never Trumper” national security experts that signed on to letters calling against Trump as president in 2016.

The White House has made clear that such letters disqualified the signatories from roles within the Pentagon.

“I don’t see any signs that they’re going to relax that stricture. That does mean that there are fewer and fewer people that both the White House would want to appoint and that the Congress would consider are qualified for the job,” Friend said.

Others have reportedly declined administration jobs, including former Treasury Department official David McCormick – who in 2017 was said to have turned down an offer to be deputy Defense secretary because he was happy at his job at Bridgewater and did not feel that role was the right fit for him – as well as former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who reportedly opted out of the job of Defense secretary twice.

The uncertainty of an election year will also make filling roles even more difficult, Friend added.

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“It makes it hard to find people who are willing to go through the uncertainty and then it makes it hard for them to shepherd them through the process.”  

But though many roles in the building have been empty for a long time “folks have learned new operating procedures just to live with it,” she said.  

“While I heard more concern and lamenting maybe a year and a half ago, at this point it’s just, ‘ok, so this is the world we’re living in and so we’re figuring out how to do the work.’”

 

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