Obama taps Clinton vets for defense posts

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Jan. 9, 2009 at 11:20 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- President-elect Barack Obama named his picks for four top defense positions Thursday, continuing a pattern of choosing centrist Washington insiders from the Clinton era for his government's top posts.

William Lynn, who served as Pentagon comptroller from 1997 to 2001, was named as Obama's choice to be the top deputy to Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Robert Hale, who was Air Force comptroller under President Bill Clinton, will be nominated to hold that post for the Department of Defense as a whole; Michele Flournoy, who was a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense under Clinton, will be tapped as undersecretary for policy; and Jeh Charles Johnson, a former federal prosecutor who became the Air Force's top lawyer in 1998, will be nominated as Pentagon general counsel.

"I am confident that these distinguished individuals have the expertise and commitment needed to help me implement a sustainable national security strategy that combats 21st century threats and keeps the American people safe," Obama said in a statement.

"These are very mainstream, centrist, responsible people," James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank told United Press International. "They are fair-minded, smart people who know the issues well."

But, he added, "These are the people who brought us the military we found out in Iraq and Afghanistan was too small and not adequately modernized." Clinton-era defense officials had helped create the "delusion" that the United States "could be a global power … on the cheap."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday that Gates, who has agreed to stay on in the Obama administration, had been "intimately" involved in the choices.

"He's personally interviewed several of them and has made recommendations based upon those interviews to the president-elect," said Morrell.

But some were more critical of the choices. "There's a pattern emerging," retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner told UPI, of recent Obama picks for senior diplomatic and defense posts. "Not only are (many of them) former Clinton people, they are the most … right wing and hawkish of the Clinton people."

Gardiner, who taught strategy at the National Defense University after retiring from the Air Force and has conducted war games exploring U.S. strategic options in the Middle East for educational research and policy organizations, added, "There's no way the promise of change can be kept" with such appointments.

Lynn, if confirmed, will succeed Gordon England as deputy secretary of defense, handling the day-to-day management of the largest department of the U.S. government and one that will face some of the toughest budget decisions as the federal deficit spirals and major defense programs look set to bust spending targets.

Lynn, currently senior vice president of government operations and strategy at Raytheon Co., "brings decades of experience and expertise in reforming government spending and making the tough choices necessary to ensure that American tax dollars are spent wisely," according to a statement from the Obama transition team.

Observers said Lynn had a solid reputation at the department when he worked there. "He had a pretty good reputation, as I recall," said one person who worked at the Defense Department at that time. "He was very well respected … a good manager," added a former Capitol Hill staffer. Both asked for anonymity because of the sensitivities of their current employers.

In his management task Lynn will be supported by Hale, who is currently executive director of the American Society of Military Comptrollers. Prior to his stint as Air Force comptroller, Hale worked for 12 years as head of the defense unit of the Congressional Budget Office.

Flournoy, if confirmed, will become the most senior female official ever to serve at the Pentagon, but observers said that had nothing to do with the choice. "The great thing is, she just happens to be a woman … she is obviously totally qualified for the job," said the former Capitol Hill staffer.

Flournoy "is a consummate defense policy official," Jason Forrester of the advocacy group Veterans for America told UPI. "It will be very heartening for troops and military families that someone like her has been chosen. ... I expect she will consider the human costs of defense policy decisions" in a way her predecessors had not, he concluded.

Since her service at the Pentagon in the 1990s under Clinton's Defense Secretary William Cohen, Flournoy has worked in academia and at think tanks, including most recently becoming the founding president of the Center for a New American Security.

"CNAS is very proud that President-elect Obama has chosen Michele," the center's Price Floyd told UPI. He said Flournoy "has proved to be a great leader here and will doubtless be one at (the Department of Defense)."

Johnson, an African-American and former director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was a special counsel to the 2004 presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and subsequently a member of the Board of Advisers of the National Institute of Military Justice.

"Our loss is the Defense Department's gain," said the institute's President Eugene Fidell, adding that the group was nonetheless "proud" about the decision, which he called "inspired."

Johnson had "a distinguished record of service" and was "universally held in the highest regard," said Fidell, who predicted he would be "a breath of fresh air" in the post, which in the Pentagon of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played a leading role in shaping and pushing the limits of the U.S. military's policy and practice on detention and interrogation.

"There will be a tremendous contrast between the office (of general counsel) under his leadership and that of the Bush administration," Fidell continued, noting that Johnson had "great values and great instincts" that would help him to restore "very cordial relations with the uniformed military bar."

He said one of Johnson's most pressing tasks would be "helping to close the chapter of (the U.S. detention center at) Guantanamo Bay … wrapping it up in a way that not only starts to restore our reputation in the world but also reflects the real dangers we face."

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