Too many times in recent years, presidents have appointed unqualified individuals to lead our most critical government organizations, and the Senate has confirmed them. Lawmakers must resist these nominations and only accept the most qualified candidates to lead critical sectors of our government — especially for the role of inspector general.
That applies to the Pentagon as well. No matter who occupies the White House, having a capable and independent watchdog as the Defense Department inspector general will be pivotal for helping Congress and the Pentagon navigate the department’s coming challenges.
But now, President Donald Trump has nominated an unqualified person to lead what is arguably the most critical inspector general position in government: the Defense Department inspector general.
The current nominee, Jason Abend, is inexperienced and untested, and we know all too well what can happen when an inexperienced appointee is at the helm.
Remember Michael Brown, President George W. Bush’s pick to be the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, who resigned following his controversial mishandling of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina? Before joining FEMA, Brown was the judges and stewards commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. President Donald Trump unsuccessfully attempted to make White House physician, RADM Ronny Jackson, his secretary of Veterans Affairs. The doctor had no experience managing a major government department.
Abend does have experience working as a special agent in two inspector general offices. He is currently a policy advisor for Customs and Border Protection. But he has no experience running a large organization, a stark contrast to the past five Senate confirmed or acting Pentagon inspectors general, who possessed a combination of substantial executive, military, law enforcement, or inspector general experience.
Abend’s ability to remain independent under pressure is also in question.
This administration has become notorious for its attacks on independent watchdogs. First came the president’s firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who advanced a whistleblower report on how the Trump administration withheld congressionally authorized funds to Ukraine. Shortly after that, the president demoted Defense Department acting Inspector General Glenn Fine, who had only recently been charged with overseeing pandemic response spending. Fine had more than a decade of experience serving as the Senate-confirmed inspector general for the Department of Justice before going to the Defense Department as principal deputy inspector general.
Abend’s lack of relevant experience is particularly concerning given the Pentagon watchdog’s broad mandate to oversee not only all defense spending, which constitutes more than half of all U.S. discretionary spending, but the inspector general offices of each branch of the military as well. The DoD inspector general also investigates or oversees investigations of retaliation against military and defense contractor whistleblowers. It’s akin to asking a weekend jogger to transform into an Olympic track star overnight.
The American people deserve a defense department inspector general who will be 100% operational on day one. I’ve been there, and I know it would be a remarkable accomplishment for anyone who has not been an inspector general previously to take on such a responsibility and be successful. Arriving at the Pentagon with no experience is an invitation for disaster. At the Defense Department, the inspector general is well beyond his or her days of “on the job training.” The odds are stacked against any individual going from a non-supervisory investigator role to a four-star position at the Pentagon.
The Inspector General Act of 1978 states that the president should appoint inspectors general “without regard to political affiliation,” and instead based on their experience in the field. We have to wonder whether the president’s nomination of Abend is consistent with the intent and the spirit of the law.
But let’s be candid here: there is an equally important concern that cannot be ignored.
Any person who is nominated for an inspector general position by this president must anticipate a day of reckoning. It’s like watching a grizzly bear bounding down a hill toward you and wondering whether you’re going to be eaten. Of course you are.
Abend may, or may not, have the potential to someday be an effective inspector general at a smaller agency. What remains unclear, however, is how he’s going to handle that grizzly bear. Only an inspector general with impeccable character, steadfast resolve, and a backbone of steel, in the face of an unreasonable, erratic and undisciplined president, could be counted on to operate independent of this administration.
The Senate should no longer ignore this president’s predisposition for nominating unqualified individuals to critical posts. It’s never too late to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, and the country they defend, by the appointment of a highly qualified inspector general.
Gordon Heddell served as Department of Defense Inspector General from 2008-2012. He previously served as Department of Labor Inspector General from 2000-2009.