The Complex

When Centcom General Speaks, People Listen

Something surprisingly unusual will take place at the Pentagon Friday. The general directing U.S. operations against the Islamic State will brief reporters for the first time since U.S. bombs started falling on Iraq and Syria — and for the first time in his entire tenure overseeing the military command in charge of the Middle East. ...

Photo: Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images
Photo: Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images

Something surprisingly unusual will take place at the Pentagon Friday. The general directing U.S. operations against the Islamic State will brief reporters for the first time since U.S. bombs started falling on Iraq and Syria — and for the first time in his entire tenure overseeing the military command in charge of the Middle East.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, which also covers North Africa and Central Asia, has long been seen as one of the more silent generals, especially when compared to high-profile predecessors like David Petraeus. Austin’s morning press conference will be his first at the Pentagon since taking his post in March 2013.

"Gen. Austin thought it was important to take some time from the fight to update the public and the press about what’s going on in the region," said Col. Patrick Ryder, Austin’s spokesman.

With 20 countries falling under his purview, Austin is a busy guy, Ryder said. While he’s talked to reporters since taking over Centcom, this will be his first briefing from the Pentagon, he added, noting that neither Petraeus nor Gen. James Mattis ever briefed from the Pentagon when they commanded Centcom. However, other combatant commanders hold fairly regular briefings from the pressroom in Washington.

"We welcome Gen. Austin to the briefing room," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said in an email. "As the commander of U.S. Central Command, his briefing will provide valuable perspective to the press and the public."

But it will also call attention to the fact that Austin hasn’t provided that kind of valuable information publicly before. While reporters have heard from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey over the last few months, there was growing frustration within the Pentagon press corps that they had yet to hear from the man directly in charge of the U.S. bombing campaign.

Earlier this month, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby responded to a complaint from a reporter about Austin’s absence in the briefing room.

"I’ve known Gen. Austin a long time," Kirby said. "I can assure you that he understands the obligation to share information with the public and the responsibility to communicate what he and his command are doing."

Kirby pointed to the daily updates that Centcom has provided since the airstrikes began back in August.

"Every day you guys are getting very specific updates about what we’re doing operationally inside Iraq and in Syria," Kirby said.

Austin is famously wary of the press, and rarely spoke to reporters in his previous job as vice chief of staff of the Army. However, he did brief reporters somewhat regularly when he served as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Even then, though, he was known for offering curt answers to questions.

A graduate of West Point, Austin is the first African-American to lead Centcom, as well as the first African-American to become vice chief of the Army.

His avoidance of the spotlight was on show in September, when President Barack Obama spoke at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

"I want to thank Gen. Austin for his introduction, Lloyd, for your exceptional leadership — were you about to sneak off the stage?" Obama asked.

"Yes, sir," Austin said. "Yes, sir, I was."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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