If history is any guide, President Obama’s Tuesday victory should allow his second-term administration to sink its feet into the cement and go after some contentious national security issues tabled for the election season. Topping the list: the fate of Guantanamo Bay detainees, the pace of the Afghanistan war exit, and the never-ending budget fight with Congressional Republicans over defense spending and sequestration.
But across the Potomac, the administration’s Pentagon team is far from stable, starting at the top. You can’t find a single person from the E-Ring to the food court Popeye’s who thinks that Obama’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, will still be at his desk next summer. When Panetta goes, likely so does much of his staff, including his right-hand man and chief of staff, Jeremy Bash.
Obama and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had to beg Panetta multiple times not to retire to California last year and to take the Pentagon post instead. Panetta was courted because he was a veteran Democrat with street credibility, having helmed the CIA during the Osama bin Laden raid, as well as a former White House budget director and House Budget Committee chairman.
But Panetta’s value to the administration’s budget negotiations is unclear. Panetta opposes sequestration but, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, supports defense cuts. It's also unlcear how much influence a lame-duck Panetta will have in swaying the likes of Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who just lost the White House to Panetta’s boss. For most of the year, however, the budget fight has largely played out above even Panetta’s rank, between the president and the House and Senate leadership.
Some are more confident than others about who may replace Panetta, but the short list remains unchanged, topped by Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense and Pentagon policy chief who has campaigned vigorously for Obama, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, the respected former weapons-buyer well-known to the military-industrial complex and Congress. Sources close to the administration tell the E-Ring some discussions are ongoing about Panetta’s successor, but that it’s still a little early in the game. One thing is certain: nobody expects Panetta to head back to the walnut farm in Monterrey in January.
If Carter were to vacate his post, eyes fall south to the Pentagon comptroller, Bob Hale. Hale has a reputation as a bit of an unsung hero at the Pentagon. Hale’s second-in-command, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Mike McCord, is well thought-of -- enough to take over what building denizens describe as a very specialized job with an importance out of proportion to the attention paid to it, given the ongoing budget fight.
“They oughta get down on their knees and pray that Bob Hale sticks around,” said one source who insisted on anonymity to discuss potential personnel changes.
One Army procurement officer told the E-Ring that he has never felt so much uncertainty in the Pentagon, citing Panetta’s unknown retirement date, the lack of a deal to avoid sequestration, and the anticipation of a new Afghanistan war plan for 2013 and beyond.
The uncertainty bleeds into Panetta’s closest circles, too, including Bash and press secretary George Little.
“Both Jeremy Bash and George Little are expected to serve in a second Obama term,” said a Pentagon official. But any new secretary is likely to want his own “special assistant,” so while Bash is likely to remain an Obama man, he probably will land somewhere outside the post-Panetta Pentagon.
As for Little, in usual changeovers, a new defense secretary would mean a new press secretary. But the Pentagon’s public affairs shop is an unusual outfit. There have been four different faces at the briefing room podium in the last 18 months: Geoff Morrell, former press secretary to Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Doug Wilson, former assistant secretary of defense; Rear Adm. John Kirby, former spokesman for Adm. Mike Mullen and the Defense Department who now runs the Navy’s public affairs; and Little.
Little came from CIA in 2011 with Panetta, and in little more than a year the Pentagon’s public affairs shop went through at least three iterations, with Little having various levels of control. But Little has moved from being just the press secretary at the podium into the much bigger office of assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Well, make that “acting” ASD. Little’s appointment has not been confirmed because it is not yet a confirmable position, but the E-Ring has learned the administration would prefer some stability beyond Panetta in that job.
Farther down the roster, the Pentagon just last year refreshed many key deputy assistant secretaries of defense (DASDs) after Gates’ retirement. Still, two posts are staffed by “acting” officials: one in the Asian and Pacific Security Affairs shop (Dave Helvey, who covers East Asia) and one under Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict (Caryn Hollis who covers counternarcotics and global threats). One posts remains vacant: the DASD for space policy, under Global Strategic Affairs.
Outside of the administration, the three most visible former Pentagon officials on the campaign are Flournoy, Wilson, and former Middle East DASD Colin Kahl. After their multistate, mutli-mock national security debate efforts on the campaign trail, all three should be high on the White House list of those expecting to return to the administration in some capacity.
Alex Wong/Getty Images