Then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visits troops at Joint Base Elmandorf, Alaska, on March 21, 2013.

Then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visits troops at Joint Base Elmandorf, Alaska, on March 21, 2013. DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett

Inside Ash Carter’s Transition Team

Ash Carter, who’s expected to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, is no stranger to the Pentagon. By Gordon Lubold

Ash Carter, nominated to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has picked a small team of experienced hands with whom he has worked closely in the past to form a transition team to help him prepare for a confirmation process expected to be contentious but ultimately successful.

At his confirmation hearing scheduled for early February, Carter expects to field pointed questions on the Obama administration’s war policies from Republican Sen. John McCain, the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee who will consider Carter’s nomination, and others.

But Carter, who is thought to have gravitas inside national security circles for having served both as head of the Pentagon’s massive weapons buying office and as the building’s No. 2 civilian, would be Obama’s fourth defense chief in six years. That may give him the leeway to speak more candidly about the wars and other policy areas, defense officials and experts said.

“[My] view is that he’s going to have to speak his own mind,” said Shawn Brimley, executive vice president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “The political reality is that Secretary Carter can afford to have his own view and articulate his own view to Congress… I wouldn’t be surprised if even in his confirmation hearing, he puts some distance between current policy and what he thinks.”

Brimley suggested that Carter could push to have more American trainers in Iraq and shift the policy slightly to allow military personnel embedded in frontline Iraqi units. That would raise the risk to U.S. military personnel considerably, but could fill gaps in the current policy that some believe have hamstrung the U.S. military’s ability to train Iraqi forces. President Barack Obama has insisted that no U.S. military personnel deployed to Iraq would serve as “combat boots on the ground,” despite Pentagon concerns, voiced privately, that that pledge boxes in the military’s war policy and removes much-needed options.

All the more reason, perhaps, why Carter has turned to familiar faces to run his transition. The transition team includes a trusted former military aide, Army Maj. Gen. Ronald Lewis; Matthew Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy; James Swartout, Carter’s former spokesman; Jody Bennett, who works on the Senate side for the Pentagon’s Office of the Legislative Affairs; and Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine two-star who has served in a variety of official and unofficial capacities for the U.S. military in recent years.

Hagel had already designated two of his own trusted aides, Rexon Ryu, his chief of staff, and Michael Lumpkin, a former naval officer who is now serving as the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, to be the point men for Carter’s transition.

But it is the individuals close to Carter who will play the most important roles.

Lewis, now the head of the Army’s public affairs apparatus who just pinned his second star on last week, is considered extremely close to Carter as Lewis served as the senior military aide when Carter was deputy secretary of defense. He remains the head of Army public affairs but is spending much of his time now on Carter. Lewis could be in the running to play a critical role as a senior officer in Carter’s front office after confirmation, potentially serving as Carter’s senior military assistant. Although that job is typically filled by a three-star flag or general officer, there are no rules that require that rank. Carter would be expected to turn to a military officer with whom he has a long relationship. Lewis, who is well regarded inside the Pentagon, is a cavalry officer with command positions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Spence announced just weeks ago that he was leaving the administration after six years working for Obama, including a stint at the White House’s National Security Council and work that also included assisting in Obama’s own transition into office in 2009. When Spence announced his departure from the Pentagon, he left his actual departure date vague. But he has now been asked to stay on to help Carter in his transition and is serving as Carter’s senior policy advisor through the confirmation process.

(RelatedObama’s New Look Pentagon Trio of Carter, Work, Kendall Excites Defense Industry)

Swartout served as spokesperson for Carter when he was deputy secretary of defense. Last summer, Swartout moved to work as special assistant and Chief of Staff to Undersecretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning. He has returned for now to help Carter on communications through the process and is serving as Carter’s official spokesman at least until he is confirmed. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby remains the Pentagon’s primary spokesman, but has deferred specific questions about transition to Carter’s transition team to Swartout.

Jody Bennett is the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’ legislative affairs department, working on the Senate side of the house and is working to coordinate Carter’s Hill visits and helping to prepare him for the hearing.  And Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine two-star who has played a role in and around the Pentagon and the military for years and is advising Carter in a number of areas as a retired senior officer.

Carter’s transition also includes more than a dozen individuals who are not detailed to the transition team specifically but who are assisting in one form or another. Each major department or office within the Pentagon has a point person who is tasked as needed. For example, there is an individual on the Joint Staff who is the go-to person for Carter’s transition team on any and all issues pertaining to the Joint Staff, but who is not considered part of the transition team itself, officials said.

Brimley said Carter must focus on four things in the confirmation process:

  • The Middle East and the linkage now between the terrorism attack in Paris last week, the wars in Iraq and Syria and the Islamic State.
  • The military compensation review, a massive undertaking that will be politically sensitive for the recommendations it is expected to make to trim the Pentagon’s expanding personnel costs and is due to be released in the next several weeks.
  • The Pentagon’s war and baseline budget, sequestration, the forced spending cuts imposed by Congress.
  • The myriad procurement issues within the Pentagon - something Carter knows much about as the Defense Department’s former weapons buyer.

Carter is spending most of his transition time in office space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the so-called EEOB, next to the White House much in the same way that a predecessor, Robert Gates, did during his own transition in 2006. Carter, who has already spoken in the Pentagon with Hagel, likely would try to avoid the distraction of working inside the Pentagon where he’d run into former colleagues as well as the media, which has free access inside most of the building.

Still, there is office space that is traditionally used for high-level transitions in the E-Ring of the Pentagon that some of Carter’s people have been using as well, officials said.