Pentagon Press Secretary Kirby To Be Replaced by a Civilian
The familiar 2-star admiral will step down as Defense Secretary Ash Carter looks for a civilian mouthpiece.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby will step down in the next couple weeks to be replaced by a civilian spokesman for new Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Kirby was rumored to be leaving as Pentagon press secretary for some weeks after it was announced that Carter would be the next Pentagon chief, and on Wednesday he confirmed a report that he would step down and be replaced by a civilian.
Pentagon leaders do not expect to name a replacement for Kirby anytime soon, and Kirby told reporters Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of Carter’s plans to name a new spokesperson.
Carter may have wanted to pick his spokesperson, but Carter’s decision to replace Kirby appeared to be more based on the fact that the admiral is a member of the military, and not due to concerns about his performance as a press secretary. Widely liked by reporters, Kirby was seen as a credible mouthpiece for the Pentagon, someone who wasn’t inclined to spin reporters as much as inform them.
But that may have been part of the reason Carter wants a civilian to take his place. U.S. service members are expected to be apolitical, and so having a spokesperson who is in uniform was seen by some as problematic. Critics, which included other military officers inside the Pentagon as well as civilians outside the Pentagon, believed that the White House viewed having someone in uniform defend its policies gave them more credibility. Others thought that Kirby was used as a political pawn and that over time it could not only blur the lines between civil-military relations but make the military look weak for defending potentially unpopular policies. Kirby, who has served 28 years in the military and received his second star in May, was in the awkward position Wednesday of having to defend his current boss’s decision to replace him.
“I think [Carter] comes to the job wanting to sort of revisit the role of spokesman here, and one of the questions that I think he wants to rhetorically ask and consider is not just who the individual is, but what that individual represents, and whether it's appropriate or not to have a uniform up here,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “And those are fair questions for him to ask as he comes into the job.”
Uniformed officers have served as principal spokesmen for the Pentagon in the past, but not in the same way. Kirby has served as Pentagon press secretary, speaking as the chief spokesperson for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who left the job last week after being forced out by the White House, and for the U.S. military.
Kirby previously served as spokesman for then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
During his tenure, Kirby said he had always been careful to steer clear of politics.
“I can’t say that there haven't been some questions that obviously have tried to veer me into political discussions,” Kirby said. “I knew that when I took this job that that was a potential. But they've been few and very, very far between.”
Last week, a reporter for Fox News, James Rosen, asked Kirby if troop morale had sagged under President Barack Obama as commander in chief in what amounted to a question that could force Kirby to provide a political answer. Kirby attempted to answer the question but appeared not to take the bait.
“I am not going to get drawn into a political debate here. I just -- you're asking the wrong guy,” Kirby said in the briefing room. “I've been in the Navy 28 years and I've served under many presidents, and I can tell you that speaking for myself, it doesn't matter to me who sits in that office. That doesn't change the way I do my job.”
But Carter, who made a point during public testimony that he wanted to underscore the chain of command – and therefore civilian oversight of the U.S. military – wanted to go a different way with spokesman.
It’s unclear yet if Kirby will retire from the military or if the Navy would offer him a position elsewhere. Unlike some other services, which select individuals from other jobs to serve as senior public affairs officers, the Navy grooms spokespeople to serve in those jobs for what can be their entire career. But there are very few places inside the Navy for a two-star admiral with a communications background. Kirby, who had served as the Chief of Navy Information, or CHINFO, wouldn’t return to that office since Rear Adm. Dawn Cutler was promoted to that position last year.