POLITICS
12/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Former Defense Official: Obama Keeping Gates The "Dumbest Thing I've Ever Heard"

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is often mentioned as a potential Bush 43 holdover in the new Obama administration. According to most reports, Gates is not only popular among the service branches, but also with Democrats, who have appreciated the secretary's moderate instincts during his time at the helm following Donald Rumsfeld.

But not everyone is sold on the idea. One former high-ranking defense official now advising Obama told the Huffington Post that keeping Gates around is "the dumbest thing I've ever heard." The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has told the Obama transition team as much.

"Most people don't realize that you can't just keep Gates," the former official said. "You've gotta keep some part of his team. We're not going to keep Gates and then appoint a new deputy, a whole new staff." The official, who spoke from personal experience within the bureaucracy, said that as an administrator, "you need your own people. And a lot of those people [under Gates] were neoconservative architects of the [Iraq] war."

The official cited in particular Defense Department undersecretary for policy Eric Edelman as a key assistant to Gates who should not remain in an Obama administration. Edelman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2003, courted controversy last year when he criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton's position on the Iraq war for "reinforc[ing] enemy propaganda."

Recently-retired Army officer Bob Mackey said that the concern over Gates's staff had some merit, but might not be too difficult for the Obama transition team to address, should they decide to keep Gates in his post. "It all depends what level [of assistants] we're talking about," Mackey said, agreeing with the former defense official that Gates's "undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries, you'd need to replace those people."

However, Mackey argued, the benefits of keeping Gates might be worth that trouble. "The argument, besides the fact that everybody likes Gates, is 'don't change boats in midstream.' He's actually listened to the commanders in field, instead of battling them back and forth."

Mackey also said Gates could be a serviceable interim secretary until retired four-star Gen. Anthony Zinni is available to serve in 2010 (since he only retired from the military in 2000). "Zinni's the guy you really want in there," Mackey said.

The former defense official, by contrast, had another person in mind for the department. "I would push [Sen. Chuck] Hagel. He's very well qualified," the official said. "And again, Obama's talked about being bipartisan. But the best thing would be the fact that he was an enlisted soldier in Vietnam. Think of the message would send to our young troops. Plus, he has management experience: he was number two in the VA and he started his own company [in the private sector]. It's not like this is a guy who's never managed anything."

As for another rumored DOD short-lister, former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, the source said he could make a good choice as well. "But again, the question is in terms of that signal that you send. You and I know who Richard is, but what about people around the world? What you want to do with Cabinet selections is send a signal about what you want to do."