Michael Kratsios at the State of the Net Conference 2019 at the Newseum in Washington on Jan. 29, 2019.

Michael Kratsios at the State of the Net Conference 2019 at the Newseum in Washington on Jan. 29, 2019. Michael Brochstein/AP

Peter Thiel’s New Man In The Defense Department

The new head of defense research and engineering comes from the White House with a relatively light resume.

Updated: 10:20 a.m.

The Pentagon’s new 33-year-old head of research and engineering lacks a basic science degree but brings deep connections to Donald Trump and controversial Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Defense officials announced Monday that Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, would serve as acting undersecretary for research and engineering, a post that oversees top-priority projects in hypersonics, quantum computing, microelectronics, and other fields. He will continue to serve in his White House role.

“In seeking to fill this position we wanted someone with experience in identifying and developing new technologies and working closely with a wide range of industry partners,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a statement on Monday. “We think Michael is the right person for this job and we are excited to have him on the team.”

Kratsios came to the White House in 2017 as deputy CTO, and moved up to CTO last year. He led efforts to further White House investment in artificial intelligence and quantum science and to expand U.S. partnerships in those areas. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, he helped launch a project to apply U.S. supercomputers to the U.S response. 

But Kratsios was a “weird pick” for these senior technical roles, according to one person who has served as both a senior White House and Defense Department official advising on technology issues. 

Kratsios graduated from Princeton with a bachelor's degree in political science and a focus on ancient Greek democracy. The person he’s replacing, Michael Griffin, holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and served as a NASA administrator. Indeed, Kratsios will be less academically credentialled than most of the program-managers he oversees. So how did he get here?

After Princeton, he went to work for Peter Thiel, soon becoming CFO of Clarium Capital Management, Thiel’s investment company. He then became  “chief of staff” for the tech billionaire, who was an early backer of the Trump campaign and who has played a key role in the administration’s approach to technology. 

Thiel-backed ventures like Anduril and Palantir are playing a growing role in the Defense Department. The former official said the overlap between Thiel-backed defense contractors and his protege Kratsios need not be a cause for concern. The Department has spent years trying to improve its relationship with the private tech world from which Kratsios emerged. But the official said Kratsios might not prove to be the most effective ambassador.

“It’s not clear to me that Kratsios is warming up Silicon Valley,” the former official said. “I don’t know how the rest of Silicon Valley thinks of Kratsios.” 

Thiel has made a variety of enemies in the tech world and beyond; for example, he has slammed Google as being too accommodating to China. 

The development, however, is good news for “the Peter Thiel portion of Silicon Valley,” the former official said.