Gates Not Afraid to Lock Horns with Top Generals
WASHINGTON - Top military officers who established a "senior mentors" program filled with retired generals often dismissed questions about the high pay and potential conflicts of interest.
"This is a values-based organization, and I know that makes people impatient who think it all has to be legalistic," Marine Gen. James Mattis said last fall about the program with at least 34 mentors that he runs as head of Joint Forces Command.
That approach, however, didn't satisfy Mattis' boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. On Thursday, Gates ordered a sweeping overhaul of the senior mentors program, imposing a series of new rules on hiring, pay and ethics.
Defense analysts such as Winslow Wheeler, a former Pentagon official, say it was a striking repudiation of top generals who had long defended the program. It also was the latest move by Gates that took on military leaders:
- He decided last year to stop buying the sophisticated but expensive F-22 fighter planes, over the objections of some Air Force officers who wanted far more than the 187 the Pentagon had already planned.
- Gates fired the Army secretary and the head of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a series of 2007 reports in The Washington Post about poor living conditions for wounded servicemembers.
- He removed the Air Force's secretary and chief of staff in 2008 over the mishandling of nuclear weapons, including the accidental shipment of nuclear material to Taiwan.
- In February, Gates fired the general in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and withheld $614 million from the contractor, Lockheed Martin, over scheduling and cost problems.
"Gates is once again demonstrating that he has the strength of character to overrule the generals when they're in the sewer," said Wheeler, a former Pentagon official turned frequent critic. "He's the most 'in-charge' secretary of Defense we've had, by my count, for about three decades."
Defense analyst Loren Thompson said, "Some key military officers would like to believe that they are a special fraternity, not subject to civilian oversight. Gates is saying, 'Sorry, but you have to follow the same rules as everybody else.' "
Through representatives, Mattis and Gates declined to be interviewed.
Gates does have critics. Michael Wynne, whom Gates fired in 2008 as head of the Air Force, says the secretary is "distracted" by the current wars and is failing to plan for future adversaries. Wynne had championed the F-22, which is designed to dominate potential foes such as Russia and China.
"Recognizing strength as rapid action forgets that it takes 20 or more years to recover from a bad decision, especially about weapons," Wynne said. "I continue to hope that his vision of 'peace in our time' comes true. I prefer Teddy Roosevelt: 'Speak softly, but carry a big stick.' "
Gates makes no apologies, though, for a focus on the current counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has pushed the military in directions it didn't want to go on certain weapon systems geared to those wars.
After a USA TODAY report showed how much safer armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were than Humvees, the Defense secretary went around the Defense bureaucracy and got Congress to fund the purchase of thousands of the vehicles, known as MRAPs.
Gates also pushed the services to buy more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and systems, including drones. The Air Force has gone from 11 drone combat patrols over Afghanistan in mid-2007 to about 60 by the end of this year, records show.
Last year, Gates ordered more Medevac helicopters to Afghanistan after he learned that severely wounded troops there were having to wait far longer than troops in Iraq for emergency evacuation. He directed that some helicopters set aside to rescue downed pilots in Afghanistan be reassigned to medical evacuation, a departure from military doctrine.
"What Gates is showing over and over again (is) that the civilians are in charge," Thompson said. "He's more concerned with running a tight ship than with getting along with the generals."
On the senior mentors issue, top officials from every service branch vociferously defended the program to USA TODAY for a series of reports that began in November. Retired generals were hired on contract, with no cap on pay and few rules governing ethics and information sharing. More than two-thirds had financial ties to defense companies, but they didn't have to disclose them.
That was all just fine, Mattis and other military leaders said.
"It's a hell of a business for amateurs, and so I can't bring in people who don't know defense and say, "Now teach these generals how to win wars,' " Mattis said last year. "As far as what they do in the other time, I don't probably always know that when I hire them."
Gates found that unacceptable. After a lengthy review by a senior deputy and discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary required that retired officers who want to be senior mentors must be hired as temporary federal employees and comply with rules to prevent conflicts of interest.
They will have to file financial-disclosure reports, and those reports will be made public if the mentors work more than 60 days and earn $119,554 or more from taxpayers. Pay will be capped at $179,700.
"Holding senior mentors to such ethical standards promotes public trust and confidence," Gates' directive says.