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Where Obama and Rumsfeld Intersect

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/080306rum1.jpgFormer Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (WDCpix)

Awkward as it may be, some of the Pentagon officials who contributed to the foreign-policy debacles of the last eight years that brought Barack Obama to power might be sticking around briefly during his first year in office.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

It’s an unusual circumstance for a defense secretary to remain in his position despite the transference of political power from one party to another. So Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in uncharted territory. Add to that the fact that the Obama transition team has made it clear that most of Gates’ aides and subordinates — some of them holdovers from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld — will be replaced.

Obama has chosen his hires carefully during his transition, insisting that he values quality.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Gates sent an email asking a certain number of Bush holdovers to remain in place temporarily at the Pentagon while the Obama defense team fully staffs the department in early 2009. He told Republican political appointees at the Pentagon that the time it takes to move in hundreds of incoming political appointees means that he might ask some of them to remain in their positions for continuity’s sake. “I encourage you to continue to prudently plan for the transition from DOD employment,” Gates caveated his email, “as the pace of personnel decisions by the incoming administration is likely to accelerate.”

Times reporter Bill Gertz identified Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper as one official who might be asked to stay for the first few months of the Obama administration. It’s not clear who the others are. Spokespeople for the Obama transition did not respond to an email about Gates’ notification.

What is clear is that some Gates staff, even those who were Rumsfeld appointees, may remain at the Pentagon for the early months of the Obama administration. That’s not in itself unusual: many officials from the Clinton administration’s national-security apparatus remained in place through much of 2001 as the Bush administration staffed itself. But it could be awkward, particularly as several of those involved in many of the security-related blunders in the Bush administration warm the seats of liberals who view their term in office as a failure.

Here’s a guide to those who might be the most awkward for the progressives in the Obama Pentagon to work with, however briefly:


Abe Shulsky**.

Shulsky was a leading figure in the the constellation of intelligence and policy programs known collectively as the Office of Special Plans since its inception in 2002. Not much is definitively known about the mysterious office, but in 2007, the Pentagon’s inspector general declared that its prewar attempts at producing alternate intelligence analysis inflating the threat posed to the U.S. by Saddam Hussein were “inappropriate.” Douglas Feith, the senior Pentagon official under whose watch the office came together, has insisted that it did nothing of the sort, and merely assisted in the planning for the occupation of Iraq.

It’s a testament to Feith’s strategic judgment that he considers such a defense exculpatory. The planning for the occupation of Iraq was a well-known disaster borne of bureaucratic suspicion, wishful thinking and cultural ignorance. And the actual occupation that took place in its wake has been a debacle, leaving over 4100 U.S. troops dead and countless tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions more displaced. Obama, of course, differentiated himself from his Democratic primary rivals by his unchanging opposition to the war and won election partially on a pledge to end it.

Yet Shulsky, a longtime skeptic of the intelligence community, remains in the Pentagon’s policy directorate. It’s unclear what he does these days. When I reached him on the phone at his office this afternoon, he politely informed me that I’d need to clear all interview requests through the Pentagon’s labrynthine press office, where my request ended up in someone’s unreturned voicemail. But journalist Laura Rozen reported that as recently as early 2007, Shulsky was part of a “secretive Iranian directorate de facto.”

Daniel Dell’Orto

Dell’Orto is a lawyer in the secretary’s general counsel’s office, and has served as acting general counsel since his longtime boss, Jim Haynes, resigned in disgrace in February. Haynes was a legal architect of the Bush administration’s indefinite detention and abusive interrogation policies. Dell’Orto was an able assistant. One of his jobs was to occasionally defend the administration’s more constitutionally dubious contentions about executive power during wartime before Congress.

A particularly farcical moment came in July 2005, when Dell’Orto faced off against Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reserve lawyer and persistent critic of the administration’s expansive assertions of executive authority. In a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Dell’Orto bridled at the suggestion that Congress shared with the president the constitutional authority to legislate on captured enemy combatants. An incredulous Graham responded:

SEN. Do you believe we have authority as Congress to regulate captures on land and sea?

MR. I’d have to take a look at that I haven’t examined that one of late.

Graham, of course, was quoting from Article 1, Section Eight of the Constitution of the United States, which grants Congress the power to “make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Someone who needs help recalling that “particular constitutional provision” might be an uneasy fit in an administration that has pledged to close Guantanamo Bay.


Mary Beth Long**.

In an administration that hinted during the campaign at a tougher line on the Pakistani government, assistant secretary of defense for international security Mary Beth Long might be an awkward fit.

One of the reasons for Obama’s famous conditions for considering U.S. military force in Pakistan was the intransigence of the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf toward an increasing “safehaven” — in the phrase used by a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate — for Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal west. That safehaven was partially created by the Pakistani army’s decision to seek ceasefires with militants in the area in 2006, which the militants repeatedly violated.

During a July 2007 House hearing, Long said that she had “personally” visited Peshawar and Islamabad to press the Pakistanis in an unspecified manner about the ceasefires, and defended the administration’s record of “increasing aid” to the Pakistani military — aid, it turned out, that was an untraceable cash payment. And she seemed to defend the Pakistani government’s continued approach of seeking “small agreements” with the militants to tamp the situation down. “Some would argue that the approach isn’t too different from the approach that we’re taking in al-Anbar” in Iraq, she said.

Yet over the next several months, violence from the tribal areas spiraled into Islamabad and the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi, assassinating opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December. It is unclear what Long did or did not do to try to prevent the further destabilization of Pakistan.

Additionally, some at the Pentagon are displeased by her style. One official who requested anonymity described Long as “an erratic, impulsive, disorganized manager who is feared and loathed by her staff.”

A spokesman for Long said she was out of the office this week and could not be reached for a response.

Jim O’Beirne.

O’Beirne most likely won’t be staying for any duration in an Obama administration, as best as I can tell. As the White House liaison to the Pentagon, he’s been in charge of placing political appointees into positions in the building — something that hasn’t traditionally carried over from Republican to Democratic administrations.

O’Beirne, the husband of longtime National Review writer Kate O’Beirne, has a special place in Iraq-war political history. Back in 2003, when the Pentagon was staffing the Coalition Provisional Authority to run Iraq, there was an obvious need for competent, experienced technocrats to rebuild the infrastructure of an unfamiliar country in record time. O’Beirne was in charge of recruiting them. Only he had a different set of criteria for the jobs at hand. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of a journalistic history of the CPA’s short existence, explained how politics factored in:

O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade.

Many of those chosen by O’Beirne’s office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance — but had applied for a White House job — was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though they didn’t have a background in accounting.

Needless to say, Obama may not have much need for O’Beirne’s resume.

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