Situation Report: Is Hagel the Pentagon’s Invisible Man?

By Gordon Lubold A week or so after Chuck Hagel was sworn in as the U.S. defense secretary, he picked up the phone on his desk to call George Little, then his press secretary, and told a temp in Little’s office that it was Chuck Hagel on the phone. The temp didn’t believe him and ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

A week or so after Chuck Hagel was sworn in as the U.S. defense secretary, he picked up the phone on his desk to call George Little, then his press secretary, and told a temp in Little’s office that it was Chuck Hagel on the phone. The temp didn’t believe him and hung up on the secretary. Later, Hagel, known for making office calls on unsuspecting Pentagon workers, walked into Little’s outer office and playfully handed the temp his card — to help her remember who he was for next time. More than nine months later, though, there is a lingering sense that she’s not the only one who doesn’t know who the man is.

When he was a senator, he was considered a free spirit — a political omnivore and independent speaker of truth to power on issues from military force to negotiations with Iran. So when he got the nod to be defense secretary, many assumed he would bring a new kind of vigor to the Pentagon just when the place needed it most.

But after surviving his infamously bruising confirmation battle, Hagel has made few daring moves. He hasn’t yet driven a pointed agenda, fired any poor-performing generals, or sent clear signals about how he’ll put his personal stamp on a job he seemed to want but many believe he has yet to own. There has been scant word of him scoring any of the kind of bureaucratic victories at the Defense Department or within the broader Obama administration that some Pentagon watchers would have thought they’d see by now.

And on the most prominent issue confronting the Defense Department — the budget — his moves have been cautious. Just this month he announced details of cuts to headquarters personnel, but its centerpiece was only a decrease of 200 people — over five years – an underwhelming cut given popular perceptions of a bloated Pentagon bureaucracy.

Since he arrived at the Pentagon, there has been little public evidence of the quiet brashness for which Hagel was known in the Senate. There have been few signs of the audacity that animated the man whose public service began when he volunteered for the Vietnam War and continued through to the political maelstrom he entered after being nominated to head the Defense Department — and fought hard enough to survive. Instead, Hagel’s contributions thus far seem mostly to fall in the behind-the-scenes category, more circumspect than courageous, and that style is at odds with a department that some believe needs a take-no-prisoners strongman of a manager.

"…There’s little question that the Obama administration is trying to shepherd in an era of diplomacy and play down its military might. Hagel’s people say their man is trying to play team ball and has purposely tried to stay away from showy plays, even though there were times when he could do so. Hagel’s reticence may be just what the Obama administration wanted; few people believe the White House really wants an activist defense secretary.

Asked to describe what he thinks the "bumper sticker" of his time at the Pentagon would be, Hagel, in an interview with Situation Report in his E-ring office last month, took a pass. "That bumper sticker will be assigned not by me, but by those who will grade and evaluate whatever I left behind in the job I did," he said. "I didn’t take this job going in with some perception of ‘this is my bumper sticker’ or the so-called Hagel era. I don’t think that way." He added: "It’s not a Hagel era; it’s an Obama era. I’m an agent of the administration."

But despite all this, and being hurled crisis after crisis, Hagel has been gaining a footing in the job, defense officials say, and point to his work on the budget and with foreign leaders. For example, after consultation with White House officials, Hagel directed the Defense Department "first into the breach," sending military jets to shoot through China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in a signal of strength that the United States wouldn’t cow to Beijing’s control of that area. China had at first demanded any noncommercial flights headed into that airspace to submit their flight plans to Beijing first. But after the United States flew jets through the ADIZ without doing that, Beijing appeared to back off its threat to scramble its own jets to escort any such flights. Defense officials also highlight Hagel’s recent trip to the Persian Gulf, where he reassured partners from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar who are concerned about the negotiations with Iran. "The crown prince told Hagel that the partnership between the U.S. and Saudi are as strong as ever, which is crucial for continued mil-mil coordination," one senior defense official said after the trip by way of showing the kind of work the secretary has been doing quietly. "In Qatar, Hagel inked a renewed defense cooperation agreement, also essential to that relationship." Read the rest of our Hagel profile, including how he’s viewed inside the Pentagon, on the Hill and by analysts downtown, here.

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From red to pink to white: the former Saudi intel chief blasts the Obama administration. The NYT’s Steven Erlanger: "An influential Saudi prince blasted the Obama administration on Sunday for what he called indecision and a loss of credibility with allies in the Middle East, saying that American efforts to secure a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would founder without a clear commitment from President Obama. ‘We’ve seen several red lines put forward by the president, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white,’ said Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia. ‘When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it.’ He added, ‘There is an issue of confidence.

"Mr. Obama has his problems, the prince said, but when a country has strong allies, "you should be able to give them the assurance that what you say is going to be what you do." The prince no longer has any official position but has lately been providing the public expression of internal Saudi views with clear approval from the Saudi government. The Saudis have been particularly shaken by Mr. Obama’s refusal to intervene forcefully in the Syrian civil war, especially his recent decision not to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria with military strikes even after evidence emerged that Mr. Assad’s government used chemical weapons on its own citizens." More here.

Al-Shabab says they are back on Twitter. Al Jazeera: "Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, al-Shabab, has returned to the social media networking site Twitter more than two months after their last account was suspended, an official for the group told Al Jazeera. On Monday, a message was posted on the social media site under the handle of @HSM_INFO carrying the standard signature of the group. ‘The aim is to vigorously challenge defamatory reports in the media by p
resenting an accurate portrayal of the current state of Jihad in Somalia and countering Western, state-sponsored propaganda machines that are paid to demonise the Mujahideen,’ an official for al-Shabab, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera. The Somali government, which has borne the brunt of most of al-Shabab attacks, has called on Twitter to ban the group." More here.

Audit, ouch edition: The U.S. Army was overcharged on Afghan radio parts. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio: "The biggest supplier of combat radios for Afghan security forces overcharged the U.S. Army for parts such as transceivers and battery chargers because the service didn’t challenge the pricing, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general. Personnel with the Army Contracting Command didn’t ‘perform sufficient analysis’ to ensure ‘fair and reasonable prices’ for equipment bought from closely held Datron World Communications Inc., assistant inspector general Jacqueline Wicecarver said in an audit marked ‘For Official Use Only.’

This is the 10th time since 2008 that the Pentagon inspector general has criticized negotiations over ‘fair and reasonable prices’ for military parts and equipment, according to the report. Three previous audits involved pricing by Boeing Co. and two others concerned the Sikorsky Aircraft unit of United Technologies Corp. Based on a sample of 127 items purchased over the past several years from Daron, the command ‘potentially overpaid up to $3.3 million’ for the communications equipment, according to the audit dated Dec. 5. It recommended that the Army seek a refund from Datron and use the money to buy additional equipment." Read the rest here.

CIA Benghazi team clash led to stand-down report. AP’s Kim Dozier: "CIA officers revealed a clash over how quickly they should go help the besieged U.S. ambassador during the 2012 attack on an outpost in Libya, and a standing order for them to avoid violent encounters, according to a congressman and others who heard their private congressional testimony or were briefed on it. The Obama administration has been dogged by complaints that the White House, Pentagon and State Department may not have done enough before and during the attack to save U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and by accusations that it later engaged in a cover-up. One allegation was that U.S. officials told the CIA to "stand down" and not go to the aid of the Americans. Top CIA and Defense and State Department officials have denied that." More here.

Defense News’ Most Influential People: 1. Xi Jinping, 2. Susan Rice, 3. Chuck Hagel, 4. John Kerry, 5. John Brennan… 96., Larry Korb, 97., Mackenzie Eaglen, 98., Marion Blakey, 99., Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, 100. "Air Power Advocates." For the 90 in between, click here.

Defense bill, budget plan face an uncertain future. Defense News’ John Bennett: "That a controversial bipartisan spending plan would be easier to push through the US Senate than a military policy bill was unthinkable not too long ago. But that has become Washington’s latest bewildering political reality. Since the onset of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Democratic-run Senate was, for the defense and other sectors, the more predictable congressional body. After all, it was the GOP-controlled House that was more chaotic, with a superconservative Republican wing feuding with its leadership and pushing the nation to the brink of fiscal calamity." More here.

Levin, on the issue raised by veterans groups and others in the budget deal that would reduce the annual COLAs for working-age military retirees:  "… The Senate Armed Services Committee is going to review this change after we convene next year, before it takes effect in December 2015.  There is also an ongoing comprehensive review of the military retirement and compensation systems being conducted by the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission established by Congress last year for that purpose, which may further bear on this issue."

McCain and Murphy tell crowds in Ukraine that their future lies to the west, not the east. The WaPo’s Will Englund: "A showdown between Russia on one side and the United States and the European Union on the other drew closer here Sunday, as two American senators told a crowd of hundreds of thousands of protesters that Ukraine’s future lies to the west, not the east… Murphy, McCain and European politicians who addressed the crowd in Kiev on Sunday turned up the pressure on Yanu­kovych, promising that their governments will consider individual financial sanctions against responsible Ukrainian officials if there is any further outbreak of police violence against the protesters who come and go at the semi-permanent encampment on Kiev’s Independence Square. Yanukovych has tried to mollify the opposition by resuming talks with the E.U. on a trade agreement. His Nov. 21 decision to back away from the deal triggered the protest movement." More here.

There is still mystery surrounding the August 2011 Chinook tragedy. FP’s Dan Lamothe: "It was Aug. 6, 2011, when a CH-47D Chinook helicopter carrying Navy SEALs and other U.S. military personnel was shot out of the sky over Afghanistan. The helicopter, carrying elite special operators to reinforce Army Rangers engaged in a firefight, was attacked from the ground by insurgents wielding rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses later told military investigators. The Chinook crashed and exploded in a fireball, and all 38 people and a working dog on board perished. More than two years later, the incident remains shrouded in mystery, and is still the deadliest day for the United States in 12 years of war in Afghanistan. Now, the case of Extortion 17 – the call sign for the downed helicopter – will get its day on Capitol Hill. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing to probe Extortion 17’s demise early next year, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Foreign Policy." More here.

Despite cuts and eye on the Pacific, the Air Force implored to save the Warthog. The Washington Times’ Kristina Wong: "The Air Force‘s A-10 "Warthog," which provides close air support for ground troops, has survived enemy anti-aircraft fire for decades but is about to be downed by the budget cutter’s pen. With combat envisioned in the Asia-Pacific region, there is little room for a "tank killer" like the A-10 Thunderbolt – nicknamed "Warthog" because of its look – and other long-treasured weapons systems in a Pentagon budget facing deep reductions, officials say. The budget cuts also could reduce production of the KC-10 Extender tanker aircraft, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Ground Combat Vehicle. ‘Do we want a ready force today or a modern force tomorrow? That’s the dilemma. You can’t have both,’ Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Forc
e chief of staff, said last week at the American Enterprise Institute. ‘If you lose a counterinsurgency action, it’s embarrassing. If you lose a full-spectrum conflict, it will be catastrophic.’ The rest here.

Kim Jong Un’s inner circle is dwindling. Dana Stuster: "…At Kim Jong Il’s funeral in December 2011, the dear leader’s casket was flanked by eight people — his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, and the "gang of seven," a collection of the late Kim’s closest advisors. These officials were hand-selected "regents" meant to guide the young dictator as he grew into his new role. Now, nearly two years later, only two of the seven remain in office after the apparent execution and very public shaming of Jang Song Taek, thought to be the second-most powerful man in North Korea. More, including the picture of Kim Jon Un walking beside the creepy old Lincoln Town Car used for his father’s funeral, here.



Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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