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Politics / Issues

Biden's Defense Pick Raises Concerns Over Civilian Control Of The Military

Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin is President-elect Joe Biden's pick for secretary of defense, the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Nominating a recently retired military officer will require a waiver from Congress, which some key lawmakers oppose.
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin is President-elect Joe Biden's pick for secretary of defense, the top civilian post at the Pentagon. Nominating a recently retired military officer will require a waiver from Congress, which some key lawmakers oppose.

Gen. Lloyd Austin retired from the U.S. Army in 2016. He'll need a waiver from Congress to serve as the top civilian at the Pentagon. It was granted to Trump's first defense chief, Gen. James Mattis.

President-elect Joe Biden's pick for defense secretary might have a tough time winning confirmation in the U.S. Senate.

Unlike other Biden nominees who also may face skeptical confirmation hearings or tight votes in a closely-divided Senate, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin would be running into trouble aside from any ideological or policy concerns that might arise. Instead, it's the fact that he's only been retired from active duty for four years.

Civilian control is a key aspect of the U.S. military, and to underscore that principle, defense secretaries are legally required to have been retired from active duty for at least seven years.

President Trump's first defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, had also been out of active service for less than seven years. Congress passed a waiver allowing him to fill the role anyway, with opposition mostly from Democrats. At the time, several key lawmakers made it clear they likely wouldn't do the same again.

"Waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation," Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in 2017, after reluctantly voting for Mattis' waiver. "I will not support a waiver for future nominees."

Reed has not weighed in publicly on Austin's reported nomination. His office has not responded to NPR's request for comment.

Senate Republicans – who, based on the outcome of next month's runoff elections in Georgia, could control the upper chamber – sound reluctant to grant another waiver, a well. "That's the exception, not the rule," majority whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Tuesday. "We did that for Mattis, but there is a reason why we have civilian oversight of the Defense Department."

"I'm not ruling it in or ruling it out," said Thune. "But I think it's something we'll have to consider when the time comes."

Austin would be the first Black defense secretary. The retired four-star general is a West Point graduate who went on to lead U.S. Central Command after decades in the Army.

A source familiar with nomination discussions told NPR that Biden got to know Austin in the White House Situation Room during the Obama Administration, and came to trust the general and his judgement.

"He also appreciated that General Austin knows the human costs of war first-hand," said the source, who was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The Biden transition has not officially announced Austin's selection yet. Other contenders for the post had been former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, who had been seen as the initial frontrunner, as well as former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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