Politics & Government

Obama nominates Ashton Carter as defense secretary

Ashton Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013.
Ashton Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013. AP

President Barack Obama officially nominated Ashton Carter, the former No. 2 official at the Pentagon, as his nominee to be next secretary of defense at a low-key White House ceremony Friday.

“With a record of service that has spanned more than 30 years as a public servant, as an adviser, as a scholar, Ash is rightly regarded as one of our nation's foremost national security leaders,” Obama said Friday morning. “As a top member of our Pentagon team for the first five years of my presidency, including his two years as deputy secretary, he was at the table in the situation room. He was by my side navigating complex security challenges that we were confronting. I relied on his expertise, and I relied on his judgment.”

Carter, 60, spent years in the Pentagon through two administrations, working in a variety of posts under 11 defense chiefs. He served as deputy defense secretary and undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“If confirmed in this job, I pledge to you my most candid strategic advice,” Carter said to Obama. “And I pledge also that you will receive equally candid military advice.”

If confirmed, Carter would be Obama’s fourth defense secretary.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said last week that he would step down, less then two years after taking office and at the height of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group. His tenure was marked with tension from almost the moment he was named to replace Leon Panetta.

The White House had announced that Hagel would attend the announcement in the Roosevelt Room, but on Friday he decided not to attend, according to a defense official.

“As Secretary Hagel knows better than most, today is a day that is to celebrate Ash, his family, and all that he will accomplish,” the official said. “The secretary is proud of Ash and of their friendship and does not want in any way to detract from or distract the proper focus of the day.”

Obama began his remarks quoting Hagel about Carter, though he did not mention that he was not in there.

Hagel will remain in office until his replacement is confirmed. But Carter is unlikely to draw significant opposition in the Senate, which would consider his nomination. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for both the No. 2 and No. 3. Pentagon positions.

“I have known Ash Carter for many years, and he is a qualified and well-prepared nominee to be our nation’s next Secretary of Defense,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Dr. Carter understands the threats that confront our country and I believe his experience at the Pentagon will make him an effective leader for our military,” said outgoing Senate Majoity Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Given the many critical national security issues confronting the United States, it is my hope that the Senate will work swiftly to consider and confirm President Obama’s nominee to this critical post.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama and Hagel made a mutual decision that Hagel should leave after meeting several times over the last month. Aides have praised Hagel but said a new leader could help with a new crop of crises has come to the forefront around the globe, including the threat of the Islamic States, combatting Ebola in West Africa and Russian aggression in Ukraine. Obama reiterated that Friday.

“When we talked about this job, we talked about how we're going to have to make smart choices precisely because there's so many challenges out there,” Obama said. “And we're going to have to squeeze every -- everything we have out of the resources we have in order to be as effective as possible.”

News reports earlier in the week said Carter would be Obama’s nominee. But the White House would not confirm the reports that came after at least three potential candidates -- Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson – publicly announced that they didn’t want the job.

A Twitter account claiming to be Carter appeared to confirm the news Tuesday, tweeting that he had received a phone call from Obama telling him he was the president’s nominee. An Italian journalist later admitted it was a hoax.

“Now, I know that some people think that I announced Cabinet positions on fake Twitter accounts. This is not the case,” Obama said to laughter.

If confirmed, Carter will return to the Pentagon during a tough time: the final two years of Obama’s term.

Hagel’s two predecessors, Robert Gates and Panetta, both complained about White House interference in books they wrote after leaving office and it’s unclear that would change with Carter. Earnest confirmed tensions with the Pentagon, though he called it “not unique” to this White House.

By the time Carter would arrive early next year, if he’s nominated, the budget, which will dictate how he can both manage the department and carry out policy, already will have been formulated without his input – undercutting what many say is his major strength for the job, a detailed understanding of the military’s massive spending plan.

After graduating from Yale, he'd become a Rhodes Scholar and earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Oxford University in England. In between his government work for former President Bill Clinton and Obama, Carter headed the international section of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and directed its preventative defense project.

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