Editor's note: Less than two months after this story on tensions between the Pentagon's top two officials first ran, Deputy Defense Secretary and Pentagon heir apparent Ash Carter abruptly resigned.
For Ash Carter, it was a commanding performance. With a view of the Rocky Mountains in the airy conference center of the Aspen Security Forum last month, the deputy secretary of defense astutely addressed some of the thorniest issues confronting the Pentagon: the budget, cyberwarfare and something the trained physicist knows well -- nuclear weapons. There was just one thing missing: Carter seemed to forget who he was.
To some in the audience, it seemed like Carter, the Pentagon's Number Two, was talking as if he didn't know where exactly he was positioned on the Defense Department's org chart. And he never once mentioned his boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- the man with whom he had just competed for the job of Pentagon chief.
To a question about a new initiative to create cyber security teams, Carter spoke with such authority that it took some people aback: "We're starting this way, because I want to start fast," he said. And a bit later, on the sequester, he spoke again as if he was the man in charge. "I did not take action until it became clear that the budget deal collapsed at the end of the year, and that is because the things that we do under sequester are harmful," he said, adding, "I wasn't going to do anything harmful to our defense."
While few outsiders would notice anything askew about what Carter said that day, to some there, Carter came off not as a man comfortable in his role as the Pentagon's deputy, but as someone openly auditioning for the top slot. One friend who was there said that that was Carter just being Carter: prepared, smart and candid. But to some back in Washington, it reflected unchecked ambition. Carter, said one senior defense official privately but who was reflecting the growing sentiment, needed to be more careful.
People close to Carter in the Pentagon insist that the deputy wasn't overreaching, and that his remarks were intended to be more personal. But combine it with other signals -- like a trip this spring to Asia that Carter planned, but neglected to tell Hagel's front office about until the last minute -- and the remarks in Aspen may have been a pivotal moment. Hagel, still trying to prove himself as secretary after his bruising confirmation battle this winter, has begun to hit his stride as the department goes through a fundamental transition after 12 years of war and blank checks.
Now Hagel has begun, gently, to recalibrate Carter's role to reflect the fact that Hagel is looking to be a more "hands-on" secretary. And while Hagel isn't limiting Carter's mission, he is in the middle of changing the dynamic in the E-Ring for his #2 to focus on the budget battles at home -- freeing Hagel up to manage the conflicts overseas. But Hagel must tread carefully. Carter is uniquely qualified in the deputy slot. And he has the president's backing.
"There is a sense of major budgetary uncertainty, and that the deputy needs to be a hands-on manager," said one senior defense official speaking, as many others did, on background because of the sensitivity of the matter. "Ash Carter is not driving policy for the department... Hagel views that as his purview."
To his supporters, Hagel is developing a knack as secretary as a stickler for details, a man who wants to absorb as much information as possible and become the best defense executive that he can be. Hagel is seen as the closer on a major arms deal with Israel and two Arab countries worth $10 billion that will give the U.S. a leg up in the Middle East. And while Hagel's more than 15 calls to Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have not persuaded the Egyptians to relent in their crackdown of dissidents there, Hagel's fans say that his engagement on the issue has been substantive and thoughtful.
Still, by all accounts, the secretary must rely heavily on his second-in-command, Carter, whose intellect, experience and knowledge are undisputed on an array of matters. But that also may mean there needs to be a better definition of roles and missions.
Carter was widely credited with running the Pentagon before Hagel arrived as the Pentagon's deputy under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Carter was thought to have free rein to manage the Pentagon as Panetta, known as a hands-off leader, oversaw bigger issues and worked with Capitol Hill on the budget battles. But Hagel has a different style. One other senior official in the Pentagon described Hagel's approach as one in which he delegates but wants a back-and-forth from underlings as an issue is hammered out; Panetta, however, delegated but wanted a "fully-baked cake" handed to him on the back end.
The dynamic between Hagel and Carter is at best a work in progress, although they have known each other professionally for some time. But Carter will now have to cater to a new type of demand.
It's something he'll do well, say Carter's many fans inside and outside the Pentagon. Jeremy Bash, Panetta's former chief of staff, predicted that Carter would one day be the defense secretary, even if not, perhaps, during Obama's second term. "The reality is that he is so skilled and so smart and so experienced, that any secretary would want him to play a big role, an alter-ego role, and that's entirely appropriate," Bash said of Carter. "Ash is the go-to guy, and he has earned that place because he has a once-in-a-generation combination of skills, intellect and experience that make him the most valuable and valued defense professional today."
Carter, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is generally thought to be the biggest brain in most rooms. But even those who admire him have sensed a certain insecurity about playing second fiddle when he so clearly wants to be the Pentagon's lead player. Still, he is widely respected for being steeped into the driest details of Pentagon policy, programs and budgets -- all skills Hagel needs as he manages the department's transition. "It's very much a kind of [chief executive officer-chief operating officer] kind of relationship," said another senior defense official, "where you won't have two folks in the same place simply because of the mounting set of uncertainties and challenges before us."
Another senior defense official who is close to the matter said that under Hagel, Carter has attended high-level "principals meetings" at the White House, get-togethers that are ordinarily reserved for cabinet-level officials. Carter's place at the meetings is a sign of the trust Hagel has in him; it's something he didn't do under Panetta. Carter also briefed Vice President Joe Biden on an important classified issue, the defense official said, noting the trust Hagel places in Carter; Carter will also play a prominent role in the pivoting of forces and military attention to Asia.