Does Hagel need a Robert Rangel?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, sworn in formally yesterday but in his third week as Pentagon chief, has a full plate, from cyber security to the budget to North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria and North Africa, to sexual assault issues and things that may seem more prosaic but no less politically potent - the future of the Distinguished Warfare Medal.

But he is also focused on building a team of staffers who can help him prioritize, focus, and be effective as he confronts the unrelenting number of decisions he’ll have to make as Pentagon chief.

Despite the many former Hagel staffers who supported him during the contentious confirmation process, both publicly and from the shadows, Hagel is not thought to want to bring a large entourage into the Pentagon -- former secretary Robert Gates famously walked into the building alone. Hagel has so far only brought in one senior aide, Aaron Dowd, a young Nebraskan who has been at his side for the last several years. Dowd is expected to play a significant role, and Hagel will also pull close a former aide from his Senate days, Eric Rosenbach, who is already in the building as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy. Tom Waldhauser, the humble Marine three-star who served as Panetta’s most recent senior military adviser and will likely stay on in that role under Hagel.

But one of the most important team players will be what is known as the special assistant, or TSA -- also known as his chief of staff. Hagel appears to be leaning toward Marcel Lettre, now in an “acting” role as special assistant.

Lettre, a former national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, has been in the building for about four years, managing the transition of Gates to Leon Panetta, and serving as the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. He then played a big role in the current transition. He’s well-regarded in and outside of the building, considered a nice guy who knows the Hill but also, increasingly, the building, and sees the big picture. “Secretary Hagel appears to be gelling well with Lettre,” a senior defense official tells Situation Report. “The final decisions haven’t been made on front office personnel, but Marcel is a quiet doer, well-liked, well-respected, and the secretary appears to have recognized that.”

If Lettre gets the nod, he’ll have big shoes to fill, following Panetta’s former chief of staff Jeremy Bash and, before that, Gates’ special assistant Robert Rangel. Both those men were also well-thought of and brought distinct qualities to the front office, say former officials familiar with the dynamic in the defense secretary’s front office.

Bash played the more conventional role of chief of staff, typically traveling with Panetta and staying close to him, effectively managing the front office and day-to-day operations of the Pentagon. Affable and accessible, Bash followed Panetta from the CIA but like others, cut his teeth on the Hill, where he had served as the chief counsel of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. That put the Pentagon’s number two -- Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, seen as competent and capable -- in what another former official described in a “chief operating officer” role, managing the building.

That was perhaps in contrast to the dynamic under Gates. Rangel, Gates’ right-hand-man, was a quiet enforcer who operated behind the scenes and rarely traveled with the secretary. Gates, who had a tight coterie of advisers, gave Rangel a larger portfolio that diminished the role of Bill Lynn, then the deputy secretary of defense. For example, Rangel had a major advisory role on budgets and policy -- all on top of his role managing Gates’ front office at the Pentagon. As a gatekeeper, Rangel was also obsessive about making sure that whatever was put in front of Gates was staged and ready for a decisive action or some kind of outcome.

“[Rangel] never traveled because his focus was on making sure the secretary’s priorities and guidance were being carried out in the Pentagon,” a former official said.

Rangel was considered fair-minded and knowledgeable and lacked a personal agenda. And perhaps most critically, he was not a screamer.

“I don’t think there are many people who have done [the job] better than Robert,” said former Pentagon policy chief Eric Edelman. “Basically there was no issue that came up that Robert didn’t know like the back of his hand.”

If Hagel gives Lettre the job permanently, he will likely define Lettre’s role much in the same way as Panetta defined Bash’s – someone with whom he will work closely and attend meetings – leaving management of the building to Carter.

Regardless, the most important thing for the special assistant is to cue up decisions for the boss, make sure he makes them, and then ensure the building follows the secretary’s will, said former officials familiar with the dynamics of the front office. He’ll have to help Hagel navigate the seemingly endless corridors of the Pentagon -- from the E-Ring into the A-Ring, and the rings in between, former staffers said. And he’ll have to act as the Great Integrator, coordinating between the services, the Joint Staff and the secretary’s office.

The special assistant must chart the course, digest a lot of information, filter it, prioritize it and then assessing whether that information -- and the people attached to it need the secretary’s attention.

“That’s where you succeed or fail, because that’s what it all comes down to,” said one of the former officials. But if Lettre says in the job, he won’t be able to do it alone. “The key for Marcel is, he’s gotta put a team up there, he can’t do it all by himself… the place is too big, the job is too hard.”

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