National Security

Ash Carter Tells Pentagon Boss, 'It's Time for Me to Go'

Flournoy, Kendall are seen as leading successors.

Ash Carter, the Pentagon's Number Two who longed to be tapped to be defense secretary, is stepping down as his boss, Chuck Hagel, looks to bring on more of his own team.

The departure of Carter, considered to be one of the most powerful and effective deputy secretaries of defense in recent history, was expected even if the timing of his resignation today caught even some Pentagon insiders by surprise.

In the letter he submitted to his boss today, Carter said he has "loved every minute" working for the Defense Department, "now as in previous times in my career." But Carter -- who had long coveted the top job and whose camp had occasionally clashed with Hagel's -- had signaled that he would leave sometime after Hagel found his bearings. Carter had planned to announce his resignation weeks ago, but the budget and the government shutdown prevented it. As neither crisis showed signs of abating, he decided now was the right time to say goodbye after more than two years on the job.

"I have decided that this situation might well continue and I don't want any more time to pass before giving you the opportunity to begin a smooth transition within the office of the Deputy Secretary," Carter wrote in the resignation letter he gave to Hagel today. "It is time for me to go." Carter will step down Dec. 4.

The divorce between Hagel and Carter seemed inevitable. As much as Hagel relied on Carter's undisputed expertise navigating the massive defense bureaucracy, Hagel has wanted to make his own mark on the department -- and with his own people. It was in fact Carter's deep institutional knowledge -- and the fact that Carter was passed over for the top job -- that contributed to the sense that there was little room for both men on the Pentagon's E-Ring. Although the two worked effectively together on a number of pressing issues, the awkward dynamic was a poorly kept secret in and outside the building, as Foreign Policy reported in August.

On Thursday, Hagel "reluctantly accepted" Carter's decision to go and in a statement said he was grateful Carter was willing to stay on and serve as his deputy.

"I have continually relied upon Ash to help solve the toughest challenges facing the Department of Defense," Hagel said in the statement. "He is a brilliant strategist and an excellent manager who helped enhance the Department's buying power, but Ash's most recent tour of the Department will be especially remembered for his tremendous efforts to provide more agile and effective support for our warfighters and their families."

Hagel added that Carter's "compassion, love, and determination to overcome any and all bureaucratic obstacles earned him their abiding respect and appreciation."

Carter's resignation was announced at a principals staff meeting Thursday afternoon at which Carter told service chiefs, service secretaries, and other Hagel "direct reports" that he was leaving. He was immediately given a standing ovation.

Carter was widely credited for being devoted to the job and relished the role. Supporters on Capitol Hill, across Washington, and inside the Pentagon credit his vast knowledge of the Defense Department. That contributed to his ability to get things done at a time of enormous difficulty for a department as it transitions from the blank checks of the last decade to now having to borrow money from a nonprofit to pay death gratuities to fallen service members, as it announced yesterday.

But Carter was also an unsung hero who remained insecure as the Pentagon's second-in-command after being passed over for the top job earlier this year. Barack Obama was said to have wanted a household name, and Hagel, a former Army sergeant, U.S. senator, and moderate Republican who'd taken firm stands on major foreign-policy issues, fit the bill.

Carter agreed to stay on to help Hagel, telling friends that he'd been asked personally by Obama to stay, as the novice Hagel attempted to get his hands around the Defense Department's bureaucracy. And after a bruising confirmation battle, most observers thought Hagel needed all the help he could get.

Carter quickly became Hagel's right-hand man, leading a top-to-bottom review of Pentagon resources as budget cuts neared. Carter also managed a big portfolio -- larger than the one given to his predecessors -- conducting high-level policy discussions with world leaders and routine interaction at the White House as he remained in control of major budget and weapons issues. One former senior staffer likened his role to that of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy under Donald Rumsfeld, who was a forceful personality in the days after 9/11 and in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Carter's reputation stemmed from the long leash he was given under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta, who retired in February, gave Carter near-unprecedented responsibility. But when Hagel arrived, the new secretary asserted himself quickly as the one in charge, redefining the roles and missions of the secretary and deputy secretary from what they had been to a more traditional dynamic.

As a result, the transition was not without its bumps, as FP previously reported. Early on, Hagel's office wasn't notified about an overseas trip on which Carter was about to embark. There were rumors of Hagel shutting Carter down in meetings. And Carter's own ego seemed to go unchecked. At a security conference in Aspen this summer, Carter spoke as if he were the one in charge, never once mentioning the secretary for whom he worked. In the hierarchy-heavy military culture, people started to take notice, and questions began to arise if the Hagel and Carter team would endure for long.

If his departure was inevitable, there was still a sense of loss, as Carter was well-liked for being the point man on a number of defense matters. The staff of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a statement on Facebook. "I've had the privilege of working with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and am thankful for his contributions over the past four and a half years," Dempsey's statement said. "He's a tremendous leader and will always be a friend to our Armed Forces."

And Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff under then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, said Carter "grabbed the budget reins" for both Panetta and Hagel, "navigating budget cuts, sequestration, and shutdown planning in a way that few others could have done," Bash told FP. "He was handed a tough assignment, and he performed exceedingly well."

Bash, now managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, predicted Carter would return to government one day.

Washington's national security community immediately turned to the more vexing question of just who would succeed Carter.

Michèle Flournoy, the policy guru who resigned from the Pentagon's top policy job in February 2012 and was also on the shortlist to replace Panetta, is again high on the list. If not a shoo-in for the job, she will be seen as an extremely likely successor. Flournoy campaigned for Obama and is thought to be well-respected across Washington. Some Pentagon watchers believe that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016, Flournoy will be an obvious choice as secretary. She might wait out Obama's second term for that possibility, passing on the Number Two job. Or, some believe, Flournoy, who has not had vast management experience on the Defense Department's scale, would be wise to jump at the chance to serve as deputy secretary. That would put her in line to succeed Hagel when the time comes.

"She's dialed in at the White House, she's respected on the Hill, had a good run as undersecretary for policy," said one former senior defense official of Flournoy. "The DepSecDef job is the final, developmental job to become SecDef, and she's young enough that she can hang around."

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics -- the building's top weapons buyer -- is also considered to be on the shortlist of possible successors. For now, Kendall is in the line of succession to become acting deputy secretary if Carter leaves without another deputy ready to step in.

As Pentagon watchers float other names, two relative unknowns have emerged: BAE Systems' Linda Hudson and the CIA's general counsel, Stephen Preston.

Carter's departure from the Pentagon won't be the last high-profile defection. Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller, long-rumored to be leaving, is expected to hand in his own resignation in the coming weeks, with a departure by the end of the year very likely, multiple sources say.

For now, the Pentagon will prepare to fill Carter's bureaucratic shoes, ones that even Hagel acknowledges will be rather big ones to fill.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


NSA Veterans: The White House Is Hanging Us Out to Dry

'There has been no support for the agency from the President, and this has not gone unnoticed.'

Gen. Keith Alexander and his senior leadership team at the National Security Agency are angry and dispirited by what they see as the White House's failure to defend the spy agency against criticism of its surveillance programs, according to four people familiar with the NSA chiefs' thinking. The top brass of the country's biggest spy agency feels they've been left twisting in the wind, abandoned by the White House and left largely to defend themselves in public and in Congress against allegations of unconstitutional spying on Americans.

Former intelligence officials closely aligned with the NSA criticized President Obama for saying little publicly to defend the agency, and for not emphasizing that some leaked or officially disclosed documents arguably show the NSA operating within its legal authorities.

"There has been no support for the agency from the President or his staff or senior administration officials, and this has not gone unnoticed by both senior officials and the rank and file at the Fort," said Joel Brenner, the NSA's one-time inspector general, referring to the agency's headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

The weak backing from top administration officials has aggravated the relationship between Alexander and the White House, where he has never been warmly embraced. The NSA now finds itself without the strong, visible support of the President at a time of extraordinary political vulnerability, with the agency's secrets laid bare and its future in doubt.

The Obama administration has long relied on America's intelligence agencies to carry out its most important foreign policy objectives, from killing Osama bin Laden to undermining Bashar al-Assad. The White House's embrace of the dark world of spycraft has been near-absolute. A rift between America's intelligence and political leaders could be more than fodder for Beltway cocktail parties. If left unchecked, it could start to erode the trusted relationships that have been at the heart of how the U.S. government handles global threats since 9/11.

Obama has only made one set of substantial remarks about the NSA's collection of Americans phone records and monitoring of Internet and email data, during a press conference in August. He did not distance himself from the programs, but he has not made a point of reminding the American people or lawmakers that he thinks they are vital. Neither the president's national security adviser, Susan Rice, nor his top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, have given any public remarks arguing that the NSA programs are legal and necessary. And no Cabinet official has mounted a concerted effort to back the agency in public.

Former intelligence officials who remain in regular contact with those still in government say that morale at the NSA is low, both because of the reaction to leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden, which put the normally secretive agency under intense scrutiny, and because of budget cutbacks and the continuing government shutdown, which has left some employees furloughed without pay.

Brenner, who also served as the government's director of counterintelligence, said that Obama could have lifted morale had he gone to Ft. Meade and made a speech vigorously defending the NSA's work. "A president who had real feeling for the intelligence business and the people laboring in that vineyard would have paid them a visit," Brenner said.

Instead, said former senior CIA official Mark Lowenthal, "They are hurting."

Stewart Baker, the NSA's former general counsel, said he had not discussed the administration's response to the NSA scandal with officials in government, but that it was the "general perception" that it had been weak.

"The President is uncomfortable defending this. Maybe he spends too much time reading blogs on the left," Baker said. "That's fatal in cases like this. You have to make the case because nobody else will."

Laura Lucas Magnuson, a White House spokesperson, said that Obama had praised the work of the agency in his remarks in August and "believes the men and women of our intelligence community, including NSA, work every day to keep us safe because they love our country. He continues to have great confidence in them, and believes they carry out their work with a sense of professionalism and patriotism."

An NSA spokesperson downplayed any rift between the agency and the administration. "National security is a team sport. For us, collaboration is built into the very fabric of who we are," said Vanee Vines. "There is no truth to rumors of dissension between NSA and the administration regarding the Agency's mission to help defend the nation and save lives. Together, we all prevail."

But Alexander may have publicly hinted at his displeasure with the administration last month, when he and Chris Inglis, the NSA's deputy director, sent a two-page letter to the family members of NSA employees and contractors. In it, Alexander and Inglis quote from a blog post by Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of Lawfare and a frequent defender of some of the NSA's programs. The quote reads, in part: "Shameful as it is that these documents were leaked, they actually should give the public great confidence both in NSA's internal oversight mechanisms and in the executive and judicial oversight mechanisms outside the agency. They show no evidence of any intentional spying on Americans or abuse of civil liberties."

What the letter did not say is that Wittes's blog post was also a harsh critique of the White House's failure to defend the NSA programs in a "full-throated and serious way." The passage cited in the letter was actually Wittes's suggestion of what an administration "with the imagination to try to change the narrative" could have said to the NSA's detractors.

After quoting the passage, Alexander and Inglis wrote, "We couldn't agree more."

Jack Goldsmith, the one-time head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote on Lawfare that "it is unclear if they are agreeing with the substance of [Wittes'] defense of NSA or with his criticism of the administration's very tepid defense of NSA, or both. But whichever it is, the letter shows that leaders of the NSA are aware that the [U.S. government] has done a truly awful job of responding to the often-misleading public characterizations of both the documents Snowden leaked and the ones disclosed by the NSA itself."

The White House's response to the NSA leaks is not in keeping with its defense of other intelligence controversies. Last year, John Brennan, then the White House counterterrorism chief, gave a major public address justifying the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Former intelligence officials called for a similar speech on NSA surveillance now. (Brennan became the CIA director in March.)

"I think actually this is the first signal that John Brennan is gone," said Baker, the former NSA general counsel. "I think that if Brennan had still been there he would have immediately appreciated the importance, and communicated that to the president, of defending the program."

Alexander has never been especially close to Obama or White House officials. Some thought he had tried to amass too much surveillance authority without appreciating the legal constraints on his agency, according to a former administration official. "I don't understand why the White House didn't throw Alexander under the bus," the official added.

The public response to the fallout from Snowden's leaks has been managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all the government's intelligence agencies. In August, the office released thousands of pages of classified documents that it said showed the NSA operating within its authorities and abiding by the law. Originally, officials had planned to release a much smaller set of data, but the DNI's general counsel, Robert Litt, intervened and pushed for a much bigger release, according to two sources familiar with the declassification process.

Litt has been one of the leading defenders of the agency, along with Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Referring to the Snowden leaks, Clapper told Foreign Policy in a statement, "This situation is unprecedented. The release of these documents represents one of the most egregious violations of trust I've seen in more than 50 years in Intelligence. Since the NSA documents were disclosed, the President and his staff have worked closely with my staff and NSA to manage this very challenging set of circumstances. I greatly appreciate the president's unwavering support of the men and women at the NSA and across the entire Intelligence Community."

Former officials may be calling for a more visible sign of that support from Obama. But it's not clear the president or a Cabinet official would persuade skeptical lawmakers and citizens that the NSA's programs should remain intact. Polls have shown a majority of Americans believe the government hasn't told them the full story about what the NSA does with people's communications records. And while legislative attempts to scale back NSA surveillance have failed so far, Congress is considering other bills that could change the way that NSA spies.

"Would the president's intervention be enough to call off Patrick Leahy and Ron Wyden? I don't think so," said Lowenthal, referring to two of the NSA's biggest antagonists in the Senate. "The president doesn't have a lot of clout on the Hill right now, in either party."