Best Defense

Pentagon official takes fire for giving his honest assessments of some generals

What’s worse than civilians asking hard questions about top military officers? Not asking them.


Christopher Kirchhoff, a Pentagon official who at the time was at the National Security Council staff, wrote in a 2015 email that Marine General Joseph Dunford and then-Air Force chief General Mark Welsh were “seen as great leaders but weak on strategic thinking.” This was in response to an inquiry meant to help the president pick the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As for Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, Kirchhoff wrote, he “is a lucid thinker in a crisis whose grasp of the substance of military options would best serve you and the president in a true emergency.”

Kirchhoff, who was a strategic planner for the NSC, wrote an article on cybersecurity for Harvard Business Review with Winnefeld, which makes it a bit ironic that his email was hacked by WikiLeaks. I myself carried information critical of Winnefeld in my book, The Gamble. For whatever reason, President Obama selected Dunford rather than Winnefeld.

I’ve seen a lot of e-mails from retired officers saying how dare Kirchhoff think this way and that he should know his place and this is why it is dangerous to give too much power to the NSC staff. At first I was inclined to agree — the Obama Administration really has been fumble-fingered in its dealings with the military, after all.

But a level-headed friend pointed out that Kirchhoff had been asked for his views by a more senior person, and responded by giving them. Isn’t that we want from people in public service? Nor, notes another acquaintance, is there a whiff of partisanship in his words. He isn’t labelling them politically, he is assessing them as advisors to the president on national security.

Bottom line: What’s worse than civilians asking hard questions about top military officers? Not asking them.

Photo credit: Screenshot

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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