The Cable

The New Face of the State Department Will Be a Retired Admiral

Just two months after he was forced out of his job as the Defense Department’s top spokesperson, Rear Adm. John Kirby is heading across the river to the State Department to take over the podium there, a senior State Department official confirmed to Foreign Policy. Kirby — who is still in the Navy — won’t ...

kirby

Just two months after he was forced out of his job as the Defense Department’s top spokesperson, Rear Adm. John Kirby is heading across the river to the State Department to take over the podium there, a senior State Department official confirmed to Foreign Policy.

Kirby — who is still in the Navy — won’t take the job until after he retires from the service, however. The State job opened up earlier this month when State’s Jen Psaki moved to the White House to be President Barack Obama’s new communications director.

Kirby left his Defense Department job on March 6, just weeks after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s confirmation on February 17. The abrupt departure — which was never officially announced by Carter’s team — raised eyebrows since there was no replacement waiting in the wings.

Two months later, Carter is still without a spokesperson, but not from lack of effort. People familiar with the matter say several potential replacements have turned the job down.

Kirby is no stranger to the State Department pressroom, having co-helmed a somewhat contentious press conference with Psaki in October to talk about the start of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria and the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The State Department press corps seized the opportunity to push the uniformed Kirby hard on the plan to arm Syrian moderate fighters, where the training would take place, and the strategy behind the airstrikes near the town of Kobani.

Soon after taking office, Ash Carter made it known to staffers that he wanted a civilian in the spokesperson role, since he was uneasy with a uniformed officer commenting on matters of policy that had been put into play by civilian leadership. Kirby’s role also put him in the uncomfortable position of coming under political attack from Obama’s enemies on Congress. In one notable exchange last fall, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called Kirby an “idiot.”

Carter has spent most of his first two months as secretary on the road, traveling to Europe, Asia, and to installations across the United States. He’s currently on the West Coast meeting with Silicon Valley tech executives. He has appeared in the Pentagon briefing room only once, in a joint press conference with chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Kirby was commissioned as a naval officer in 1986, and has had a long career in public affairs. He did time as the Navy’s chief of information and was the top public affairs officer for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In that time, he’s forged a good reputation among reporters for having an open door and being able to discuss a wide range of national security and foreign-policy issues. He also has salty sense of humor, often stopping by the Pentagon’s press pen to share jokes and conduct impromptu briefings with the reporters there.

(Department of Defense photo)

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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