Ash Carter Tells Pentagon Boss, ‘It’s Time for Me to Go’

Flournoy, Kendall are seen as leading successors.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ash Carter, the Pentagon’s Number Two who longed to be tapped to be defense secretary, is stepping down as his boss, Chuck Hagel, looks to bring on more of his own team.

The departure of Carter, considered to be one of the most powerful and effective deputy secretaries of defense in recent history, was expected even if the timing of his resignation today caught even some Pentagon insiders by surprise.

In the letter he submitted to his boss today, Carter said he has "loved every minute" working for the Defense Department, "now as in previous times in my career." But Carter — who had long coveted the top job and whose camp had occasionally clashed with Hagel’s — had signaled that he would leave sometime after Hagel found his bearings. Carter had planned to announce his resignation weeks ago, but the budget and the government shutdown prevented it. As neither crisis showed signs of abating, he decided now was the right time to say goodbye after more than two years on the job.

"I have decided that this situation might well continue and I don’t want any more time to pass before giving you the opportunity to begin a smooth transition within the office of the Deputy Secretary," Carter wrote in the resignation letter he gave to Hagel today. "It is time for me to go." Carter will step down Dec. 4.

The divorce between Hagel and Carter seemed inevitable. As much as Hagel relied on Carter’s undisputed expertise navigating the massive defense bureaucracy, Hagel has wanted to make his own mark on the department — and with his own people. It was in fact Carter’s deep institutional knowledge — and the fact that Carter was passed over for the top job — that contributed to the sense that there was little room for both men on the Pentagon’s E-Ring. Although the two worked effectively together on a number of pressing issues, the awkward dynamic was a poorly kept secret in and outside the building, as Foreign Policy reported in August.

On Thursday, Hagel "reluctantly accepted" Carter’s decision to go and in a statement said he was grateful Carter was willing to stay on and serve as his deputy.

"I have continually relied upon Ash to help solve the toughest challenges facing the Department of Defense," Hagel said in the statement. "He is a brilliant strategist and an excellent manager who helped enhance the Department’s buying power, but Ash’s most recent tour of the Department will be especially remembered for his tremendous efforts to provide more agile and effective support for our warfighters and their families."

Hagel added that Carter’s "compassion, love, and determination to overcome any and all bureaucratic obstacles earned him their abiding respect and appreciation."

Carter’s resignation was announced at a principals staff meeting Thursday afternoon at which Carter told service chiefs, service secretaries, and other Hagel "direct reports" that he was leaving. He was immediately given a standing ovation.

Carter was widely credited for being devoted to the job and relished the role. Supporters on Capitol Hill, across Washington, and inside the Pentagon credit his vast knowledge of the Defense Department. That contributed to his ability to get things done at a time of enormous difficulty for a department as it transitions from the blank checks of the last decade to now having to borrow money from a nonprofit to pay death gratuities to fallen service members, as it announced yesterday.

But Carter was also an unsung hero who remained insecure as the Pentagon’s second-in-command after being passed over for the top job earlier this year. Barack Obama was said to have wanted a household name, and Hagel, a former Army sergeant, U.S. senator, and moderate Republican who’d taken firm stands on major foreign-policy issues, fit the bill.

Carter agreed to stay on to help Hagel, telling friends that he’d been asked personally by Obama to stay, as the novice Hagel attempted to get his hands around the Defense Department’s bureaucracy. And after a bruising confirmation battle, most observers thought Hagel needed all the help he could get.

Carter quickly became Hagel’s right-hand man, leading a top-to-bottom review of Pentagon resources as budget cuts neared. Carter also managed a big portfolio — larger than the one given to his predecessors — conducting high-level policy discussions with world leaders and routine interaction at the White House as he remained in control of major budget and weapons issues. One former senior staffer likened his role to that of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy under Donald Rumsfeld, who was a forceful personality in the days after 9/11 and in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Carter’s reputation stemmed from the long leash he was given under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta, who retired in February, gave Carter near-unprecedented responsibility. But when Hagel arrived, the new secretary asserted himself quickly as the one in charge, redefining the roles and missions of the secretary and deputy secretary from what they had been to a more traditional dynamic.

As a result, the transition was not without its bumps, as FP previously reported. Early on, Hagel’s office wasn’t notified about an overseas trip on which Carter was about to embark. There were rumors of Hagel shutting Carter down in meetings. And Carter’s own ego seemed to go unchecked. At a security conference in Aspen this summer, Carter spoke as if he were the one in charge, never once mentioning the secretary for whom he worked. In the hierarchy-heavy military culture, people started to take notice, and questions began to arise if the Hagel and Carter team would endure for long.

If his departure was inevitable, there was still a sense of loss, as Carter was well-liked for being the point man on a number of defense matters. The staff of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a statement on Facebook. "I’ve had the privilege of working with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and am thankful for his contributions over the past four and a half years," Dempsey’s statement said. "He’s a tremendous leader and will always be a friend to our Armed Forces."

And Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff under then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, said Carter "grabbed the budget reins" for both Panetta and Hagel, "navigating budget cuts, sequestration, and shutdown planning in a way that few others could have done," Bash told FP. "He was handed a tough assignment, and he performed exceedingly well."

Bash, now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, predicted Carter would return to government one day.

Washington’s national security community immediately turned to the more vexing question of just who would succeed Carter.

Michèle Flournoy, the policy guru who resigned from the Pentagon’s top policy job in February 2012 and was also on the shortlist to replace Panetta, is again high on the list. If not a shoo-in for the job, she will be seen as an extremely likely successor. Flournoy campaigned for Obama and is thought to be well-respected across Washington. Some Pentagon watchers believe that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016, Flournoy will be an obvious choice as secretary. She might wait out Obama’s second term for that possibility, passing on the Number Two job. Or, some believe, Flournoy, who has not had vast management experience on the Defense Department’s scale, would be wise to jump at the chance to serve as deputy secretary. That would put her in line to succeed Hagel when the time comes.

"She’s dialed in at the White House, she’s respected on the Hill, had a good run as undersecretary for policy," said one former senior defense official of Flournoy. "The DepSecDef job is the final, developmental job to become SecDef, and she’s young enough that she can hang around."

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics — the building’s top weapons buyer — is also considered to be on the shortlist of possible successors. For now, Kendall is in the line of succession to become acting deputy secretary if Carter leaves without another deputy ready to step in.

As Pentagon watchers float other names, two relative unknowns have emerged: BAE Systems’ Linda Hudson and the CIA’s general counsel, Stephen Preston.

Carter’s departure from the Pentagon won’t be the last high-profile defection. Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller, long-rumored to be leaving, is expected to hand in his own resignation in the coming weeks, with a departure by the end of the year very likely, multiple sources say.

For now, the Pentagon will prepare to fill Carter’s bureaucratic shoes, ones that even Hagel acknowledges will be rather big ones to fill.

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