With the U.S. presidential election just over a month away, the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is quietly accumulating the names of potential candidates who could fill out Defense Department leadership roles — including current and former defense executives.
Names circulating among Romney aides include former SAIC CEO Walt Havenstein, CACI Chairman Jack London, EADS North America CEO Sean O’Keefe and Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Robert Stevens. Senior Romney defense advisers John Lehman, a former Navy secretary; former Rep. Vin Weber,
R-Minn.; and former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim also are frontrunners for top defense posts if Romney wins.
Stevens said he had not been involved in any conversations with the campaign about potential positions, and that he has no intention of entering government, regardless of which party wins in November.
“There has been no contact and no discussion whatsoever,” he told Defense News.
Stevens plans to step down as CEO on Jan. 1 but is slated to remain chairman of the board for another two years. He said he is looking forward to retirement.
“It shouldn’t surprise anybody that retirement can be just retirement,” he said. “I think I’d like to go out and enjoy some of the benefits of retirement that I personally think I’ve earned from a career focused on working.”
Havenstein also said he hasn’t reached out to the campaign — nor has it reached out to him — but he said he would be open to serving in any administration, if asked. As a lifelong Republican, he would prefer serving the former Massachusetts governor, whom he is helping in New Hampshire.
O’Keefe, who served under both Bushes, is widely regarded as a top candidate for any senior DoD job. He declined to comment for this article.
According to Jody Brown, CACI executive vice president for communications, “Dr. London, CACI’s chairman of the board, is active in representing and providing thought leadership on national security issues. However, there has been no discussion with him on this matter.”
Defense aides in both campaigns spend painstaking hours reviewing possible candidates for defense jobs. Those names are then submitted to top campaign officials. Intermediaries often play a key role, both feeling out potential candidates’ interest and making recommendations.
Stevens has been one of the more vocal critics of sequestration, and has criticized the Obama administration’s planning, or lack of it, as the cuts approach. He has also been one of the few executives to unambiguously confirm that he intends to issue layoff notices to employees, in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, in preparation for sequestration.
But Stevens said characterizations by sources that he is “pissed off” at the administration, and therefore interested in working at DoD in a Romney administration, are inaccurate.
“Just the notion of my being quote ‘pissed,’ forgive me, is laughable on its surface,” he said. “The word isn’t pissed, the word is in part frustrated.
“But I am not the only person anywhere near this process that feels a frustration with sequestration, when so many in the House and the Senate, I think very clearly and very honestly, have stated their opposition to this process. That we haven’t found a remedy at this juncture is, I think, frustrating to them and frustrating to me.”
Concerns about any other industrialists’ backgrounds are being raised, but these are normal when it comes to selecting high-ranking defense officials. The Obama administration successfully installed William Lynn as deputy defense secretary, and he was able to perform the duties of the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian job despite his ties to Raytheon.
As for whether former executives are good for the Pentagon, some believe the dual experience is beneficial.
“The reason that helps so much is that government doesn’t understand how industry works, and vice versa,” said Dave Oliver, a former principal deputy defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Oliver, a defense adviser to President Barack Obama’s campaign, is the most prominent Democratic industrialist with an interest in returning to work at the Pentagon.
Oliver, who joined the DoD after a stint working for Northrop Grumman, said the lack of understanding means that having an executive move into government provides a knowledge bridge that is otherwise lacking.
“It’s really good to understand both sides of the aisle,” he said. “You understand where the pressures are and where to look for flaws. If you’ve had to play defense against something, you’re a better offensive player.”
Gordon England, who spent more than three decades in the defense industry before serving during the George W. Bush administration as Navy secretary, the deputy at Homeland Security and deputy defense secretary, agreed.
“My experience in industry was very valuable at the Department of Defense, giving me a familiarity with the product base, the technology and the complexity of the modern military,” said England, president of E6 Partners, a defense consulting firm that has advised Lockheed Martin. “The surprise is the sheer size and complexity of the organization.
“There is a very steep learning curve, even when you know the field and you have good mentors,” he said. “The Pentagon is like a country and is as complex. A lot of people think the Pentagon is all screwed up, but that’s not true. You can improve it, but it fields superb forces, magnificent people and great equipment and frankly is one of the better performing federal departments.”
There’s nothing new about senior business executives setting up shop as Pentagon leaders. Top auto executives such as Robert McNamara and Robert Wilson have served as defense secretary, and more recently, Donald Rumsfeld brought his experience as chief executive of a pharmaceutical giant.
The Obama administration, which was initially leery about putting defense executives in key Pentagon posts, ultimately hired Lynn and, when he left, replaced him with Ashton Carter, who was an industry consultant and board member of government think tank Mitre before joining the government. Current acquisitions chief Frank Kendall is a former Raytheon executive, and industrial policy chief Brett Lambert worked at defense intelligence firms for roughly two decades.
But neither the former nor current defense secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, has any defense industry experience.
That contrasts with the way the Clinton administration set up its Pentagon leadership team, which included Defense Secretary William Perry, acquisition chiefs Paul Kaminski and Jacques Gansler, as well as Oliver, all of whom had
either led defense firms or divisions at major firms before taking those jobs.
The George W. Bush administration, in keeping with its philosophy of bringing a more business-minded focus to government and the Pentagon, picked each service secretary, as well as each acquisition and analysis chief, from defense contractors.
Just as England became Navy secretary after working at General Dynamics, James Roche, a retired Navy captain, left a top job at Northrop Grumman to become Air Force secretary. Thomas White, a retired Army brigadier general, left a senior post at Enron to take over as Army secretary and Dov Zakheim, once CEO of analytical firm SPC, became Pentagon comptroller.
Each of the more recently discussed industrialists has some prior connection to the military besides his industry experience. Stevens was an enlisted Marine, while Havenstein and London, both U.S. Naval Academy graduates, are retired military officers. Havenstein retired as a Marine lieutenant colonel and London retired as a Navy captain. None of the three has served in appointed Pentagon jobs, however.
In recent times, it has been unusual for executives to go straight to the top jobs without having worked at the Pentagon in junior capacities first.
Lynn was a senior Senate staffer before his time at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration — as the chief of program analysis and evaluation and later as comptroller — returning to DoD during the Obama administration as deputy secretary. O’Keefe was also a congressional staffer, then comptroller, then Navy secretary, and in George W. Bush’s administration led NASA.
That’s in contrast to someone like Stevens, who has none of that political experience.
Another potential issue for senior executives taking Pentagon jobs could be deferred compensation.
“I tried to hire a couple of guys when I was working for Jacques Gansler, and I couldn’t because the guy would say, ‘I’ll lose millions of dollars,’” Oliver said. “You get into guys making money and wanting to keep it, and they want Congress to give them special considerations. Congress sometimes looks askance at people who will draw retirement pay after they leave a company. They say, ‘Will he make a decision that could cause that company to go broke, and he would lose his retirement?’”
England said too much is made of conflicts. Once people take a Pentagon job, their old affiliations cease.
“When people move from industry to DoD, they know their responsibility is to DoD and the nation and quickly separate themselves from their prior job,” he said. “When you go in there, you are in the throes of tomorrow’s problems, not getting wrapped up in old issues.”
Indeed, during the first George W. Bush term, then-Air Force Secretary Roche fought his former employer to block the purchase of additional B-2 stealth bombers.
“It comes with the territory; you’ve got to make tough calls that not everyone will like,” England added.
And given the nation’s financial challenges, the new team at the Pentagon will have to tackle global challenges on a tighter budget but also spearhead further reforms to acquisition, processes, personnel and benefits.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.