Ashton Carter Said To Be Front-Runner For Defense Secretary Nomination

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on December 2, 2014 4:54 pm

The White House is close to nominating someone to replace Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Ashton Carter, the former number two at the Pentagon, is said to be the front-runner. Several other top candidates withdrew their names from consideration in the past week. Carter, a former Rhodes Scholar, is known as a strong manager and an expert on many issues facing the department.

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It's now been eight days since Chuck Hagel said he was stepping down as secretary of defense. At the time, President Obama didn't announce a pick to replace him. And since then, at least three top candidates have said that they were not interested in the job. President Obama has not yet revealed who he'd like to serve as the fourth Pentagon chief of his presidency. But the short list is getting shorter. And to learn more about who's on the top of that list, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: Last Monday when the news broke out about Secretary Hagel leaving the Pentagon, the names of a couple of successors were floated. But why is it taking so long to select someone?

WELNA: Well, I think the main reason is that, one by one, the most obvious choices for replacing Hagel have said they didn't want the job. Michele Flournoy, who was the Pentagon's number three civilian during the first three years of the Obama presidency, was the strongest contender. She would've been the first woman to serve as defense secretary, and she's well-liked on both sides of the political aisle and among the uniformed military. But Flournoy is also seen as a possible defense secretary if Hillary Clinton is the next president. So, she said this was not a good time for her to take on such a job.

Another top-tier candidate was Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed. He's a former Army paratrooper and the number two Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. But Reed just got reelected, and he too let it be known that he wasn't interested in Hagel's job. Then, there was Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who'd previously been the Pentagon's general counsel, but nominating him would have created another cabinet vacancy, so he's no longer in the running.

So the person it now seems to have come down to is Ashton Carter. He served in both the number two and three jobs at the Pentagon before moving on about a year ago. Carter is said to be quite keen to be defense secretary, and speculation that he's in line for that job really crescendoed after his former chief of staff at the Pentagon quit her job at the Commerce Department yesterday, an indication that Carter may be reassembling his Pentagon team to move back there.

CORNISH: What more do we know about Carter in terms of whether he'd be a significant change from Hagel?

WELNA: Well, Carter knows the Pentagon well. He's spent many years in top positions there in both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. He has a doctorate in theoretical physics and taught international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School. His main role at the Pentagon has been modernizing weapon systems and streamlining a quite unwieldy arms procurement process. He was also a key force behind the Obama Administration's policy of pivoting to Asia and the Pacific as well as its new emphasis on cyber warfare.

CORNISH: And, of course, the Senate must confirm the president's pick for the Pentagon job. If it was someone like Carter, I mean, would that be a confirmation fight?

WELNA: Well, probably not. Carter has excellent prospects, I think, for a swift confirmation, even in a Senate that's controlled by Republicans. I talked today with the top two Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain and Jim Inhofe both told me that Carter would be a fine nominee who'd have their support. But they also expressed doubts about how much of a free hand the White House would give him, or anyone else for that matter, as defense secretary.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent David Welna talking with us about potential - potential candidates for the - to be secretary of defense. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.