President-elect Barack Obama has run into some difficulty staffing the top rungs at the Department of Defense, with the expected short tenure of Secretary Robert Gates creating a problem for potential candidates, officials within the transition and in the defense community said.
The delay has created a rare speed bump in an otherwise historically fast-paced transition effort.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton and the president-elect had settled on two deputy secretaries of state to serve under the former first lady. Jim Steinberg, a seasoned foreign policy hand who worked in the Clinton administration and was an adviser to Obama during the general election, will presumably play the role of policy hand. Jacob Lew, Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton, will help secure and structure Foggy Bottom's budget.
At the Pentagon, however, officials said there has been some difficulty in staffing the deputy spot under current Secretary Gates. The problem is that Gates' time at the Pentagon is likely to be short-term, and the perception is that the deputy slot will not be a placeholder for Gates' successor, but rather a temporary slot that will turn over when Gates leaves his position.
Uncertainty about the future construct of the Pentagon is causing pause among potential deputies and undersecretaries. And the desire to offer the new Defense Secretary a clean break from the Gates tenure is persuading Obama to hold off on putting a likely future secretary in the deputy slot.
"There have been some problems," said a source close to these discussions. "Because, again, how long is Gates going to stay. It is up in the air... I think everybody feels Gates will be there about a year. And that makes it awkward. How much say will Gates have in staffing?"
"I am concerned," the source added. "I understand the reason for keeping Gates and for the need for continuity for Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, I would say if he wants to sign up, he should stay for the whole tour."
The early rumor mill held that Richard Danzig, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton, would serve as deputy under Gates. But that talk has fizzled a bit as time progressed -- suggesting that Danzig may simply take over the Pentagon once Gates goes.
As important as the individuals, however, is the philosophy. Multiple sources say that the Obama team wants a business/budget-minded individual to take the deputy spot.
"It is a post for someone who understands the budget process and can manage the bureaucracy," said a well-connected Democrat in defense circles. "That job is running the building, the largest employer in the world. And the Obama team knows that is worth considering."
The current deputy, Gordon England, has already announced that he would be leaving the post by January 20, the day Obama is inaugurated. So the need to find a replacement for him and others -- including Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman -- is growing a bit more pressing.
Influential in this process, it seems, will be John Hamre. The President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies served as deputy secretary of defense and under secretary of defense during the Clinton years. And though there is little indication that he wants a re-run at either of those posts -- one source said he has established he would turn down an offer -- he is apparently playing an important behind-the-scenes role.
"Hamre is pulling a lot of the strings, helping the Obama team with staffing decisions," said the same Democrat. "He has the respect of a lot of people in Obama's circle, and he is comfortable being the man behind the curtain."
Hamre, who currently is the chairman of the Defense Policy Board advising Gates, could not be reached for comment.