The Cable

Obama’s Pick for Army Secretary Pulls Out — at Least for Now

With no confirmation hearing in sight, Eric Fanning has pulled his name from consideration until Republicans relent.


Eric Fanning has waited four months for the Senate Armed Services Committee to formally consider his nomination to be President Barack Obama’s next secretary of the Army. On Monday, with no hearing in sight, Fanning threw in the towel.

Fanning had been serving as the Army’s top civilian official on an acting basis, but the Pentagon said he would be stepping down from his position until he gets a confirmation hearing — a move that could be months away. With no signs that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to hold that type of session anytime soon, it’s possible that Fanning will never get his day on Capitol Hill.

Since Fanning was nominated in September, McCain’s committee has held 24 public hearings, including a Dec. 15 session to consider the nomination of Patrick J. Murphy as undersecretary of the Army. Murphy was confirmed a short time later and will hold Fanning’s post indefinitely.

Fanning is hardly an unknown player, having already held several high-level Pentagon jobs, including a brief stint as Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s chief of staff earlier last year. His confirmation would also make him the first openly gay leader of a military service.

His problems stem, in part, from Guantánamo Bay. Republicans in Congress are furious over Obama’s plans to use his executive authority to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility by the end of his term — and transfer dozens of detainees to prisons in the United States — and blocking nominees is one way to show their displeasure.

In November, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) put a hold on Fanning’s confirmation over the Guantánamo issue.

Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for Roberts, said in a statement that “the senator’s hold on Eric Fanning is not personal” and that Roberts has asked the White House “to provide a guarantee that detainees will not wind up in Kansas.” The senator “remains committed to stopping the president from moving a single detainee to the [United States] and will continue to use all legislative tools at his disposal to do so.”

It’s unclear when Roberts might lift the hold or what would have to happen for him to do so.

Fanning won’t be sitting on his couch at home while the drama on Capitol Hill plays out. Instead, he’s expected to take a staff job in the office of the secretary of defense while waiting for a hearing.

Some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee told defense officials that by remaining in his position, Fanning would violate the Vacancies Act, which regulates requirements for filling openings that require Senate confirmation. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook offered a different explanation: Fanning, Cook said, was stepping down as “a show of comity” to Congress.

Photo credit: U.S. Army

Correction, Jan. 12, 2016: Eric Fanning briefly acted as the chief of staff for Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier last year, in 2015. A previous version of this article said that he was chief of staff earlier this year. 

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

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