Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the chairmanship position of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. The story has been updated to reflect his leadership position on the House Armed Services' Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
WASHINGTON — As assistant majority whip and a member of the influential Republican Policy Committee, US Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., is squarely in House GOP leadership. And as chairman the House Armed Services' Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes special operations programs, counterterrorism programs, cyber operations and information operations, his potential influence in the next administration looms large. Defense News Hill reporter Joe Gould spoke with Wilson on Dec. 5, just as retired Marine Gen. James Mattis emerged as President-elect Donald Trump's defense secretary pick and just ahead of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act's passage in Congress.
You have children who have served in the military. You're the former chair of the HASC Personnel Subcommittee. What do we need to know about this compromise conference report on the NDAA? We know it didn't have all the hardware, but it came through on end-strength.
I'm really pleased about that. I've been so concerned. We've had people involuntarily separated and the training our service members have had, I want people who would like to stay in to be able to. It's so critical. I do need to clarify I have two sons in the Army Guard, one son in the Navy and one of my Guard sons who's completed his service.
Any concerns about the ships and jets that were in the House-passed bill not being in the final bill?
Especially with the incoming administration, we are now poised to really address whatever shortfalls there are. President-elect Trump has made very clear that he is very supportive of a strong military and I'm also very pleased that the people he's appointed understand that too.
In that vein, I know you call Vice-President-elect Mike Pence a friend. Have you gotten any signals from him that we'll see more defense spending in the coming year?
I just know what their predisposition is and I've had the opportunity to travel with Mike Pence to Iraq and Afghanistan. We traveled together in 2008. And so I know of his commitment to the military and the consequence of his commitment and the statements of Mr. Trump are all going to be for a stronger military.
One thing the NDAA did do is elevate Cyber Command to its own combatant command.
Absolutely, to a four-star combatant command. It's a prelude to further study. We're doing everything we can to address cybersecurity and cyber threats.
Why now and why not split it off from NSA yet?
The first reason is there is a greater recognition than ever of the cyber threats against our country and then I support the view of [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman Mac Thornberry and [Senate Armed Services Committee] Chairman John McCain, that they want study before they're separated. There is a GAO study that will be made to give guidance for separating or keeping them as they are, dual-hatted.
We've heard calls in Congress for deeper investigation in Russia's influence in elections and hacking. What's Congress's role when after all, Russia is accused of taking a serious stab at undermining American Democracy?
We have seen cyberattacks against Ukraine and Estonia, that attacks can jeopardize their military capability, but also health and safety through interruption of their power generation. It's bipartisan, working with Congressman Jim Langevin [the HASC Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee's ranking Democrat], we were able — and gosh, it's good that there are bipartisan initiatives — and one that we proposed was an identification of levels of cyberattack so that there could be a study of the difference between interference and an act of war.
Is there a role for Congress to play? Should the next administration take a stronger tack against the Russian interference, to let them know it's not okay?
To me, it's not just one country. We have non-state actors. I’m very, very concerned myself about Iran and the capability they will have due to the Iranian nuclear agreement funding. It's inconceivable the amount of money provided to this theocratic regime, which claims death to America and death to Israel.
Reportedly Donald Trump's pick for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, was forced to retire early as commander of U.S. Central Command in 2013 by the Obama administration for being too hawkish on Iran. Is that a perspective Trump will need now or do you think Mattis needs to start fresh?
My view is Gen. Mattis understands that the  Beirut bombing was actually an attack by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He has not forgotten that, and I share his awareness that we should never forget that attack —  Marines, it breaks your heart, clearly by the Iranian regime and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
There's a lot of discussion on a waiver for Gen. Mattis and the principle of a civil-military balance. How concerned are you? What's the right amount of time and attention for Congress to give that waiver?
Four years, seven years, what is the precise number? Four to me is fine. I’ve seen in my service on the armed services committee that the military fully understands we have civilian control. It’s been somewhat painful to me to see our officers testifying and I’m not sure they actually agree [with the Obama administration], but they are very professional and they conduct themselves understanding that we have it in the United States and should always have civilian control of the military.
With a number of departures from the House Armed Services Committee, you are losing some old friends. Be candid, is it tough to lose all that experience on the committee?
To me, it is, particularly with Congressman [Randy] Forbeswith him being a champion for a strong Navy. I’m hopeful that he might be in another position to promote that. He would make an excellent secretary of the Navy because of where he lives and the people he serves. He has a full understanding of the capabilities and needs of the Navy. Then, of course I wish well Congressman Jeff Miller who is stepping down as chair of the Veterans Affairs committee. Also, we have others stepping down — Congressman [Chris] Gibson, with extraordinary military service. On the other hand, we have new members with military backgrounds, and I look forward to urging consideration that they be placed on the armed services committee.
These are people who have experience in the field, but does that balance out the members who have a deep understanding of Congress, how it functions, programs and policies?
I think it will balance, particularly with the leadership of Mac Thornberry. He will be very proactive in assisting new members to the committee and getting them up to speed right away.
Pardon my math, I'm a reporter. Do those departures leave you as next in line for chairman when Thornberry's term as chair expires in 2020, and do you want that job?
I want to earn consideration, and that’s why I’m as focused as I am and always have been. My job is you do well where you are and you’re considered someplace else. That is exactly what I tell my sons every day. I’m fully focused and, really, enthused to be subcommittee chairman for emerging threats and capabilities. With the challenges facing our country today it's a real honor, and I have great professional staff and office staff to promote the best interests of the American public.
Folks seem to really not know what to expect from the new administration. What are your biggest questions as far as this administration and its Defense Department?
I actually am predisposed that he will be working for the strongest possible military. He’s made it very clear that he will address the issue of sequestration which I think is the biggest immediate threat to our military, for readiness and equipment. I understand his comments about NATOwere not about NATO, but that all its members should be fully participating to the best of their abilities. It was perceived by many people as an anti-NATO statement. From my perspective, actually it was pro-NATO, that he wants all member countries to be proficient and all working together—that we all be ready to defend. It’s so sad to me, and I never imagined, that the borders of Europe would be in jeopardy, but they are.
I’ve been to the Republic of Georgia, and I’ve seen Russia encroaching on the sovereignty of that country. I’ve also been to Ukraine and I’ve met with military leaders there. It’s so sad. The way to avoid conflict is to show strength, and that’s what I believe Trump will do —particularly with Gen. Mattis.
Even in spite of the overtures he's made towards Russia? There's criticism he has expressed admiration for Putin. Do we discount that?
No, I don’t discount it. I do know Mr. Putin respects strength. And I actually think Mr. Trump actually respects Mr. Putin’s strength. We can be stronger, which will be beneficial to maintaining the borders of Europe. I think it's not just beneficial to us but also the people of Russia.