Overnight Defense: Biden taps Austin for Pentagon chief | Army announces Ft Hood firings, suspensions | House approves defense bill despite Trump veto
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: President-elect Biden has officially named retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as his nominee to be Secretary of Defense.
Biden made the announcement Tuesday afternoon after news first broke Monday night he would pick Austin to be the nation’s first Black Defense secretary.
“Gen. Austin shares my profound belief that our nation is at its strongest when we lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” Biden said in a statement.
More on Austin: Austin retired from the military in 2016 after serving as the commander of U.S. Central Command since 2013.
His military career also includes time as the commanding U.S. general in Iraq and as the vice chief of the staff of the Army.
Austin was initially seen as a long-shot candidate to be Defense secretary, but he emerged as the leading contender as Biden faced pressure from Black leaders to select an African American nominee. Biden and Austin developed a relationship during the Obama administration, including the then-vice president attending Austin’s change-of-command ceremony in Iraq in 2010.
Upcoming hurdles: But Austin is already running into hurdles on Capitol Hill. The law requires Defense secretaries to be out of the military for at least seven years, meaning Congress has to pass a waiver to allow Austin to take the job.
Lawmakers approved a waiver for 2017 in James Mattis for Defense secretary, but warned at the time they would be disinclined to do so again.
On Tuesday, two Senate Democrats signaled opposition to a waiver for Austin.
“I have the deepest respect and administration for General Austin and this nomination, and this nomination is exciting and historic. But I believe that a waiver of the seven year rule would contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who opposed Mattis’s waiver, told reporters.
“That principle is essential to our democracy. That’s the reason for the statute which I think has to be applied, unfortunately, in this instance,” he added.
Warren to vote against waiver: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Tuesday that she will oppose granting a waiver to retired Austin.
“I have great respect for General Austin. His career has been exemplary and I look forward to meeting him and talking to him more but I opposed a waiver for General Mattis and I will oppose a waiver for General Austin,” Warren told reporters.
ARMY SECRETARY ANNOUNCES MULTIPLE FIRINGS AFTER FT HOOD INVESTIGATION: Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Tuesday announced the firing and suspension of numerous officers and enlisted soldiers at Fort Hood in a sweeping disciplinary action to address widespread sexual harassment and violence, suicides and murder at the troubled Texas base.
McCarthy said 14 leaders at Fort Hood have been relieved or suspended from their position, a move that comes after an independent review of the base’s command was ordered to review years of sexual assault and violence.
“I have determined the issues at Fort Hood are directly related to leadership failures. I am … disappointed that leaders failed to effectively create a climate that treated all soldiers with dignity and respect and have failed to reinforce every ones’ obligation to prevent and properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” McCarthy told reporters at the Pentagon.
A direct result: The removals are a direct result of the independent review, released on Tuesday, which scrutinized the base’s command climate and culture. McCarthy ordered the look after the discovery of the remains of Pfc. Vanessa Guillen, 20, who went missing in April before her body was discovered in early July.
Who was removed: The Army earlier this year removed Fort Hood’s commander, Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt — who was leading the base when Guillen went missing — dropping him down to deputy and barring him from a planned position at another Texas base. But Efflandt has now been relieved altogether, in addition to Col. Ralph Overland and Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Knapp, the 3rd Cavalry Regiment commander and command sergeant major.
McCarthy also directed the suspension of Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Broadwater and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas C. Kenny, the 1st Cavalry Division commanding general and command sergeant major, respectively, pending the outcome of a new Army investigation of the division’s command climate and Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program.
The base commander, Lt. Gen. Pat White, was deployed to Iraq for much of the year and will not face any administrative action, McCarthy said.
The service will not release the names of the battalion level and below commanders and leaders who received administrative action “as matter of policy and to protect individual privacy.”
A new policy: In addition to the staffing changes, McCarthy also announced a new Army policy on missing soldiers, focused on tracking and finding a soldier in the first 48 hours after they fail to report for duty.
The policy alters the practice of immediately declaring a soldier as AWOL, or absent without leave, instead changing their duty status to “absent-unknown” for up to 48 hours while determining if they went missing voluntarily or not.
Next steps: Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, who spoke alongside McCarthy, said he spoke to Guillen’s mother on Tuesday morning and told her “we’re going to fix these issues and change the culture that allowed them to happen.”
McConville and McCarthy will also brief the Army senior leaders on the report on Wednesday and “will ensure it is understood and our plan to move forward will be implemented throughout the Army.”
More on the report: The new report was compiled over 103 days during which the panel surveyed 31,612 soldiers, interviewed 647, and met with civil, elected and local law enforcement leaders, as well as local district attorneys.
The findings identified major flaws with the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program, fundamental issues with the Fort Hood criminal investigation arm, and a command climate at Fort Hood that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault, McCarthy said.
He noted that the Army had created a task force to map out a plan to tackle the report’s nine findings and 70 recommendations and will begin to implement them by March 2021.
HOUSE APPROVES DEFENSE POLICY BILL DESPITE TRUMP VETO THREAT: The House easily approved the annual defense policy bill Tuesday, defying President Trump’s repeated veto threats.
The bill was approved in a 335-78 vote with one Democrat voting present. It’s above the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto, though it is not certain that a number of GOP lawmakers would vote to override the president.
In the Tuesday vote, 140 Republicans voted “yes” and 37 Democrats voted “no.”
Not backing down: The bipartisan approval of the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will leave supporters hoping the support is strong enough to dissuade Trump from following through with his veto threat.
But Trump has so far not backed down from the fight as some of his staunchest allies in Congress cheer him on. And even though many Republicans voted for the bill Tuesday, it’s unclear if they would vote against Trump after a veto and hand him the first override of his presidency.
The NDAA, which has become law 59 years in a row, is considered must-pass because it authorizes dozens of special pay and bonuses for service members, as well as military construction projects and training programs.
“This bipartisan policy bill has been signed into law for 59 consecutive years. Let’s urge the president to show respect to the work of the bicameral, bipartisan Congress and for the sacrifice of our military,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday ahead of the veto.
The contested issues: Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over two separate issues.
First, the bill would require the Pentagon to rename within three years Confederate-named military bases and other property and set up a commission to plan how to carry out those changes.
Trump argues that changing the names “desecrates” the bases, but lawmakers in both parties see the change as past due as the military and the nation grapple with racism and the legacy of slavery.
Trump is also threatening to veto the bill because it does not include a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives online platforms liability protection for content posted by third parties while allowing them to make good-faith content moderation efforts.
Trump, who became fixated on Section 230 after Twitter started adding corrective labels to his unsubstantiated posts alleging widespread voter fraud, demanded late in the negotiations that Congress add a repeal of the decades-old statute to the NDAA. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue the NDAA is not the place to address a tech issue that has little if anything to do with national security.
Other rebukes: In addition to the two main issues provoking the veto threat, the NDAA rebukes Trump in several areas.
It would block troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Germany until the Pentagon assesses the effect of any drawdown, require sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian missile defense system and put an annual cap on emergency military construction funding after Trump used billions to build his border wall, among other breaks with the White House.
Upping the pressure: Ahead of the vote, Trump upped pressure on Republicans to oppose the bill.
“I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO,” he tweeted Tuesday morning.
The White House also issued a formal statement of administration policy Tuesday afternoon saying Trump’s “advisors would recommend he veto” the bill because it “fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by this administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions.”
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a virtual Project on Nuclear Issues Winter Conference discussion: “Nuclear Policy in Asia,” with Air Force Lt. Gen. Scott Kindsvater, deputy chairman of the NATO Military Committee, at 9:30 a.m.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States will hold a virtual discussion on “Turkey’s Foreign Policy, “ with Ibrahim Kalin, presidential spokesman and chief adviser to Turkish President Erdogan, at 10:15 a.m.
Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Lombardo, senior enlisted leader of the U.S. Army Reserve, will speak at the Association of the U.S. Army at noon.
House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), will speak at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute virtual discussion: “America’s role in the world given the landscape of national security threats and challenges,” at 12 p.m.
A House Armed Services subpanel will hold a hearing on “Fort Hood 2020: The Findings and Recommendations of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee,” at 1 p.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118.
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— The Hill: China rips US over new sanctions, arms sale to Taiwan
— The New York Times: U.S. Leaves Behind Afghan Bases — and a Legacy of Land Disputes
— The Associated Press: US provides anti-bomb, snipers’ equipment to Philippines