Two's a Crowd at the Pentagon

Is the Defense Department big enough for Chuck Hagel and his deputy?

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.

"The role is not necessarily diminished," said that official, "it may be different because Hagel and Panetta have different styles, but Ash is still being asked to do some of the most important work for the Department and the Secretary."

And although a recent "Strategic Choices and Management Review" was Hagel's initiative, it was Carter, who along with the building's number two in uniform, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld, who led that analysis of the Pentagon's top priorities. So comfortable was Carter with the details of the review that Carter, not Hagel, briefed its results on Capitol Hill.

Informed by the Pentagon of this story, a steady stream of senior military officers and defense officials provided Foreign Policy with unsolicited input about the value Carter brings to the Defense Department's leadership. The statements and calls came from luminaries of the security establishment such as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, and former Congresswoman Jane Harman. All of them expressed their extremely, deeply, profoundly positive views about this "most talented" (Panetta) "universally respected" (Dempsey) man with an "intellect, leadership, and ability to get things done" (Harman).

Another was Winnefeld, who volunteered his analysis of the different leadership styles of Panetta and Hagel -- and how Carter figured into both. "Panetta's style was that of big Italian family... Hagel's style is that of an independent Midwesterner," Winnefeld wrote in an e-mail. For both men, Carter has been "an extremely good partner, incredibly hard working, collegial, inclusive and stunningly effective."

"Not only has Ash taken on the traditional Deputy Secretary role of running the Department," Winnefeld added, "he's been a tireless advocate for properly equipping our troops in Afghanistan, for our wounded, ill and injured warriors, and for the Department's support for veterans, as well as taking on some of the higher level strategic issues confronting a very challenging policy environment."

And in a statement to FP, Hagel said that Carter is a "trusted, experienced and respected leader" and that he relies upon Carter to help him make decisions on national security, the well-being of the military, and on a number of internal matters. "The American people are fortunate to have him as one of their most senior public servants," according to the statement from Hagel.

Indeed, the notice that Carter elicited by his remarks in Aspen in July may be a residual from the role he played under Panetta, who directed Carter to run the department so he could focus on larger matters. Traditionally, there's a different division of labor between the defense secretary and his deputy. The secretary focuses outwardly -- guiding the military strategically, doing most of the international travel, briefing the commander in chief, and being the face of the Pentagon. The deputy is supposed to handle the day-to-day operations, managing programs, budgets, keeping inter-service rivalries at a dull roar and ensuring the trains run on time.

Those roles have been upended in recent years. Bill Lynn, the deputy under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was considered ineffective for a variety of reasons. Among them: that Gates's special assistant Robert Rangel functionally usurped the deputy's job, taking a strong hand guiding the Pentagon's day-to-day doings. That left Lynn largely out of the loop -- and frustrated. When Panetta arrived, he was happy to allow Carter to assume that role of managing the building. But now, as Hagel seeks to establish himself as an effective secretary, there is change once again. While Carter will maintain much of his portfolio, his travel will likely be more limited and his focus will be shifted to inside the Pentagon. But as military types like to say, it ain't soup just yet -- the relationship is still being formed.

"There is a certain degree of structural shift," said Shawn Brimley, a former director of strategic planning on the National Security Council and a former advisor to the Pentagon's policy planning staff. As the wars end and the Pentagon's focus turns inward, both the secretary and the deputy secretary are by definition focused on many of the same things. "Now you have the Secretary and the Deputy focused internally, certainly in ways that are abnormal in terms of the last 13 years."

Carter was on the very short list to be defense secretary. He was considered, along with Hagel and former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy. Both Carter's and Flournoy's credentials and bona fides as leaders of the Pentagon were clear. But President Barack Obama went in a different direction. When the president made his choice, one former defense official said, he told Carter that he was picking between a manager and a presider. And the president said he wanted a presider, according to this official, and so gave the nod to Hagel. Obama also was looking for more of a household name, and while Carter's credentials were unsurpassed, Hagel was better known.

After Hagel was tapped and prevailed during the nasty confirmation battle, it was clear that Hagel would want his own people around him. He soon chose Mark Lippert, who had broad experience at the White House and on Capitol Hill, as his chief of staff. Recently Hagel announced that he would ask Army Maj. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams to be his senior military assistant, replacing Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who had worked for Panetta. But Hagel was given the job under at least one condition: he would keep Ash Carter on. "The President had asked [Carter] to stay, [replacing Carter] wasn't going to happen," said one former official.

Under Panetta, Carter's portfolio included building and maintaining international partners, and Hagel has both supported and encouraged that, senior defense officials said.

Also under Panetta, Carter ran a so-called "Senior Integration Group," which assessed the needs of the commanders in Afghanistan and helped to coordinate missions with NATO partners. He will continue that under Hagel. Carter has also been particularly focused on the relationship between the U.S. and India after Panetta asked him to help drive that relationship to a new level. "Hagel is very supportive of that," said one senior defense official. Iraq is another example, defense officials said, where Carter has been instrumental in working through the "difficulties with our partner, [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki]" to smooth the way for foreign military sales.

But now that his boss, Hagel, is getting more comfortable on the job, it's clear that Carter is being asked to adapt. It won't be hard for him, his supporters contend.

"One of the great things that the Secretary relies on Ash for is his nimble thinking," another senior defense official said. "He is a rocket scientist after all."

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst


The Fog of Chemical War

After eight months of allegations, why do we know so little about Syria's nerve gas attacks?

Since this story was published, there have been allegations of a major new chemical attack in East Ghouta, not far from Damascus. Hundreds of people are dead, according to the Syrian opposition. If the reports are even remotely accurate, this would be the biggest chemical weapons strike in decades. A preliminary examination of the footage by American intelligence officials and outside experts leads them to believe that chemical weapons were involved in the attack. But piecing together exactly what happened in Ghouta won't be easy; the Assad regime has taken deliberate steps to hide its chemical tracks, as the story below shows.

All of the major players in Syria -- and all of their major backers -- now agree that chemical weapons have been used during the civil war there. But the mysteries surrounding a string of alleged nerve gas assaults over the spring have, in some ways, only grown thicker. The motivations and tactics behind the unconventional strikes continue to puzzle U.S. intelligence analysts. And the arrival in Damascus of United Nations weapons inspectors holds little promise of solving the riddles.

Independent tests of environmental samples by both Russian and American spy services indicate that the deadly nerve agent sarin was used during a March 19 battle in Khan al-Assal, for example. Beyond that basic fact, there's little agreement. The Russians blame the Syrian rebels for launching that unconventional strike on the Aleppo suburb, while the Americans say it was a case of chemical friendly fire.

U.S. intelligence officials tell Foreign Policy that they're continuing to investigate claims of new chemical weapon attacks in Syria, including an alleged strike earlier this month in the town of Adra that left men foaming at the mouth and dogs twitching in the street. They're continuing to see supplies shuffled around some of Syria's biggest chemical weapons arsenals, such as the notorious Khan Abu Shamat depot.

But the number of reports of unconventional attacks has dropped sharply since early June, these same officials say. That's right around the time when forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad took over the strategic town of Qusair and gained the upper hand in Syria's horrific civil war. The decline provides to American spy services another indication that it was Assad's forces who launched the chemical attacks; there's little need to gas people when you're winning.

There was a time when such determinations appeared to hold geopolitical significance. The Obama administration repeatedly called the use of chemical weapons a "red line." But that line has now been crossed repeatedly, with little consequence. And that's led U.S. intelligence officials to confront another question: How massive would the chemical strike have to be in order to prompt America and its allies to intervene in Syria in a major way?

"As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything," an American intelligence official admits.

The U.N. inspection team arrived in Damascus on Sunday to test claims by Syria, Britain, France, and the United States that chemical weapons have been used in the country's two and a half year-long civil war. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who is leading the U.N. mission, plans to spend at least 14 days in the country and to visit at least three sites where chemical agents have allegedly been used.

The team's arrival will mark the culmination of nearly five months of often-acrimonious negotiations over the U.N team's terms of access. It comes just weeks after Sellstrom and the U.N.'s undersecretary general for disarmament, Angela Kane, struck an agreement with top officials in Damascus on the terms of the inspections.

In advance of the visit, the United Nations has sought to dampen expectations that the team will blame one side or the other for using chemical agents.  The mission's mandate, U.N. officials have repeatedly insisted, is simply to determine whether chemical weapons have been used, not to establish who ordered the attacks.

Rumors of chemical weapons use have been making the rounds since late last December, when reports surfaced indicating that chemical agent may have been used in a government offensive in Homs. But the accusations began to grow more numerous and more believable in March. It was Syria that first asked the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to conduct an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons on March 19 in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo.

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, alleged that Syrian rebels had attacked Syrian authorities with chemical weapons. He said the government has compiled medical reports, blood samples, and victim testimony supporting its claim, and invited the U.N. to send a team to Syria to evaluate the evidence. British and French officials believe that Syrian authorities may have indeed been exposed to chemical agent, but that they were the victims of a "friendly fire" attack conducted by Syrian forces.

But Syria balked after Ban agreed to a request by Britain and France to expand the investigation to sites where Syrian rebels claimed the government had used chemical weapons. Today, the U.N. has received a total of 13 allegations of chemical weapons use, mostly claims by the rebels that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

Back in April, Ban said that a credible investigation would require the inspection team be granted "unfettered" access to all sites where chemical weapons have allegedly been used. But Security Council diplomats say that the U.N. has since backed down. Sellstrom believes that most of the cases of alleged chemical weapons use are too thin, or the evidence too old, to merit full-fledged investigations. He has honed in on three cases where, he believes, the trail is fresher and the evidence stronger. The U.N. has acknowledged that it will investigate the March 19 incident near Aleppo, but it has not revealed the location of the two other sites. 

Syrian opposition leaders have expressed concern about the limited scope of the investigation. On Aug. 1, the Syrian National Coalition wrote Ban, saying the opposition "stand ready to cooperate fully with representatives of the mission and welcome UN investigators into all territories under its control." But the group remains concerned that the United Nations may be walking into a propaganda trap. "If the scope of the mission is restricted to only three sites, the coalition is worried that an important opportunity will be missed to establish authoritatively the extent to which chemical weapons have been used," said Najib Ghadbian, the coalition's U.N. representative. "There is an urgent need for the UN to conduct a comprehensive investigation into all credible allegations of chemical weapons uses."

Ghadbian urged the U.N. to visit all of the sites where such weapons may have been used, including during the latest incidents in Adra and Douma. That's not likely to happen. Not only are these highly contentious war zones. But the chemical claims are often questionable. Take the attack in Adra earlier this month. A YouTube video shows victims complaining of a sulfur smell; the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice, sarin, is generally odorless. The clip also shows victims foaming at the mouth; sarin doesn't ordinarily produce such an effect.

U.S. analysts speculate that some of these atypical effects may be the result of Assad's military using an atypical mix of chemical arms, so-called "riot control agents," and conventional munitions on the battlefield. In December, one former chemist for the Syrian regime told Al Jazeera that this blending of weapons was done, in part, to create a confusing blend of symptoms -- and mask their source.

Traditionally, militaries launch chemical attacks separately from ordinary ones. Not so in Syria. In a single bombing run near Aleppo last May, for instance, U.S. intelligence believes that a single Syrian warplane dropped bombs loaded with tear gas, sarin, and conventional explosives.

"When we first started hearing about this, we didn't understand. Why one sarin bomb in the middle of a major bombardment?" asks one U.S. intelligence official. Perhaps it's a way to cover up the use of chemical weapons, as the chemist suggested. Perhaps it was to force potential enemies out into the open. Perhaps it's a way to further terrorize the targets of the bombing runs. "We think it's strange, but whatever the Syrians have been doing, it's been very effective," the official adds. After all, the government appears, for now, to be winning the war.

Contributing to confusion is the long-standing suspicion that Assad's forces are brewing up their unconventional weapons in unconventional ways. One of sarin's two main precursors is isopropanol -- rubbing alcohol, basically. But the material used for chemical attacks can't be purchased in any drug store. While the commercial stuff typically is 70 percent water, the weapons-grade isopropanol is highly concentrated, with less than 1 percent water. That makes it extremely hard to obtain. Some outside observers believe the Syrians are using less isopropanol than usual in their sarin in order to preserve their precious stockpile of the precursor. (It would also produce milder-than-normal effects in a victim.) If the dilution theory is true, it could be an indication that Assad intends to hold on to his chemical arsenal for a long, long time -- and unleash it only when his rule is once again under threat.