Biden's Defense Pick, Lloyd Austin, Seeks To Become 1st Black Pentagon Chief

Jan 19, 2021
Originally published on January 19, 2021 9:46 pm

Updated 7:10 p.m. ET

Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden's pick to head the Pentagon, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday in a bid to make history by being confirmed as the nation's first Black secretary of defense.

During his opening statement, Austin, 67, addressed the biggest issue hovering over his nomination.

In order for him to lead the Pentagon, both the House and Senate must approve a waiver because Austin has not been out of uniform for the seven years required by the National Security Act of 1947.

Retired U.S. Army General Lloyd Austin speaks after being nominated to be secretary of defense by President-elect Joe Biden.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

"Let me say at the outset, that I understand and respect the reservations that some of you have expressed about having another recently-retired general at the head of the Department of Defense," Austin said.

"The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces. The subordination of military power to the civil."

Concerns over military waiver

Austin also sought to allay the fears of some committee members by promising to surround himself with "experienced, capable civilian leaders."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., raised concerns that under Trump's first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general who received a waiver from Congress, there was "an over deference to military views."

Austin reiterated that it was critical for him to have the right people involved in the decision-making process. He said if he's confirmed his chief of staff "will not be a military person," but someone who understands policy, strategy and also has ties to the White House and to Congress.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin. Cotton said he could not support the waiver to allow Austin to serve as Secretary of Defense because he has not been out of the military for seven years. He did vote for the waiver in 2017 for President Trump's nominee to lead the Pentagon Jim Mattis.
Greg Nash / AP

That was not enough to sway Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is an Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran.

"I supported the waiver for Gen. Mattis with reservations four years ago, which I quickly came to view as a mistake and I have since regretted," Cotton said.

"Unfortunately, I must announce that I oppose the waiver of the seven-year cooling-off period," Cotton said, adding that it was not a personal indictment of Austin's credentials.

Austin is a retired four-star Army General who once served as head of U.S. Central Command, the military's top command post which oversees U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. He's the only Black general to attain this position.

It was in that post that Biden came to know Austin, during the Obama Administration, NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman has reported.

Biden called Austin "a true patriot" in an op-ed in The Atlantic last month. He also referred to him as a trailblazer and one who challenged the Army to grow more inclusive in its ranks over his decades of military service.

"In his more than 40 years in the United States Army, Austin met every challenge with extraordinary skill and profound personal decency. He is a true and tested soldier and leader," Biden wrote.

The president-elect also wrote about spending hours with Austin, both in the field and in the White House Situation Room.

"I've sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character," Biden added. "The fact is, Austin's many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely matched to the challenges and crises we face. He is the person we need in this moment."

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who served during the Obama administration and introduced Austin at the confirmation hearing, echoed those sentiments.

"Lloyd's accomplishments at the Department of Defense are without peer," Panetta said. "He knows that while we cannot defend our nation without our armed forces, we cannot defend our democratic form of government without strong civilian stewardship of our national security."

Capitol insurrection looms large

The deadly breach at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month was another subject about which senators questioned Austin. Since a mob threatened the certification of Biden's electoral victory during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol complex, many have raised concerns about extremism within the ranks of active duty military and members of the National Guard.

Prior to Austin's confirmation hearing, two National Guard members were removed from the mission to secure Biden's inauguration after vetting, according to Reuters.

Also on Tuesday, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explicitly blamed Trump for the riot that left five people, including a Capitol Police officer, dead, saying the president "fed lies to the mob" before they stormed the Capitol.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was among a group of senators who sent a letter to Pentagon officials last week calling for them to "investigate and address white supremacy and extremist ideology" among their ranks.

Blumenthal, who also said he opposes a waiver for Austin, also said he looked forward to working with him, should he be confirmed, on "countering and combating this very important threat."

Austin agreed that the issue was "critical" and that better screening is needed of military recruits. He also shared an anecdote about years ago when he was working as a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina.

"We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks and they did bad things," Austin said, without providing details.

He said military leaders held those individuals accountable, again without details, but added that signs of those extremist elements were clear.

"The signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn't know what to look for or what to pay attention to," Austin said. "But we learned from that."

Austin's confirmation, should it happen, will not be quick

With Democrats poised to take control of the U.S. Senate, Austin's eventual confirmation appears likely, but will not be immediate.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the committee's top Democrat, also spoke of his reservations about approving the waiver for Mattis and having to do so again for Austin.

But he also spoke to the frayed relations between the military and some American citizens.

Reed, who served in the Army, said that "the state of civil-military relations has eroded significantly" during the Trump administration. He pointed to last summer's national protests against police brutality and Trump's threat to use military force against civilians under the Insurrection Act.

Austin vowed to do more to address military sexual assaults, which many senators raised among their chief concerns. He was also peppered about how he viewed global threats, notably from Iran and China.

"I think China is ... our most significant challenge going forward," Austin said, while referring to Iran as a "destabilizing force" in the Middle East.

He was also questioned about his post-military service, including his position as a board member with defense contractor Raytheon Technologies.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said "we have to do a lot more to end the cozy relationship between the Pentagon and the defense industry." She also praised Austin for agreeing to do extend his recusal for matters involving Raytheon.

Should he be confirmed, Austin is expected to divest from the military contractor, as well as the investment firm Pine Island Partners, according to The Hill.

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