Sixteen years ago Lieutenant General James R. Clapper retired from the US Air Force. He subsequently served as an executive with Booz Allen and SRA International before being appointed by President Bush as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2001. He left that agency in 2006 for a brief stint as an executive at a division of BAE Systems and a professor at Georgetown University. In 2007 he was appointed as under secretary of defense for intelligence. Now he has been nominated to replace the hapless Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence.
So it was somewhat surprising to read a Washington Post op-ed today by Bruce Ackerman, allegedly a professor of constitutional law at Yale, entitled: James Clapper: Another military man for a civilian post.
We tend to speak in vague generalities about the importance of civilians making the key decisions on military matters. But this commitment, dating to our nation's founding, will be reduced to banality unless it is given real-world meaning. The emerging pattern makes nonsense of the idea that military men should defer to civilians on big issues. Regardless of the abilities of particular advisers, Obama is entrenching a bad precedent. Presidents are in constant contact with their national security adviser and intelligence director -- which creates the danger that the nation's commander in chief may tend to take seriously only those options that make sense to the military mind.
When the postwar generation created the Defense Department and the National Security Council, it took practical steps to ensure -- as the Founders first insisted -- that the military would be under civilian leadership. But this commitment has been eroding throughout the higher reaches of the defense establishment.
For example, Congress wanted to ensure that the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force would be civilians. So it barred retired officers from these positions until they had spent five years in civilian life. The first postwar generation followed the spirit of this law. Before 1980, the Senate confirmed 42 secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and nearly all were civilians in fact as well as name: Only one had 15 years of military service, and only 17 percent had served as many as five years. But since 1980, 27 have been confirmed, and nearly a quarter have served for 15 years or more, while 44 percent have served for as many as five years. Only the secretary and deputy secretary of defense remain reliably civilian.
After more weaseling we come to his real argument.
By dint of his 45 years in intelligence operations, Gen. Clapper is well qualified. But as they consider his confirmation, senators should confront a larger question: Does Clapper have the breadth of exposure to civilian life that will give him a deep appreciation of democratic values and aspirations?
Taken together Ackerman's op-ed represents a stunning lack of understanding of the constitution, the law, government, and the military. All this rolled up in a remarkable detachment from reality.
First and foremost, Clapper retired from the Air Force in 1995. He's not a military man. (In fact, many of us would argue that him being an Air Force intelligence officer is a prima facie case that he was never a military man.) He is a veteran. There is a difference. I, personally, don't like the appointment of active duty military officers to senior positions in the executive branch. I thought it was a monumentally bad idea and bad symbol when Colin Powell was appointed National Security Advisor to President Reagan or when Michael Hayden was appointed head of the CIA by President Bush. Having said that, as a non-constitutional-law-professor, I'd be an utter ass to argue that either of those appointments placed in jeopardy civilian control of the military or the future course of the republic. Especially as the DNI doesn't have very much to do with the military other than subscribe to their intelligence product.
Secondly, the Congress wished to ensure that various cabinet positions were held by persons with an arm's length relationship to the military. It did not intend that military service be disqualification from service. The fact that the laws in question specifically allow appointment after a certain break in service would serve as a signal to most of us that Congress actually did contemplate that retired officers would serve as service secretaries, etc., and made provision for it. One must also pointedly note, that contrary to Ackerman's statement, the restriction only applies to members of the Regular component of the Armed Forces. There is no restriction on either reservists or Guardsmen from serving in those positions. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981-1987, was a Naval Reserve officer who did active duty tours as a fairly junior officer while simultaneously serving as SecNav. Just for the record, Donald Rumsfeld was a retired Navy officer, something that seems to have escaped Ackerman's trenchant analysis.
The whole op-ed does nothing more than argue that ignorance of the agency you are appointed to oversee is a virtue. While the Great Unwashed might think it useful that the Secretary of the Army (or any service) have some familiarity with that service, its traditions, mission, equipment, and culture in order to more effectively supervise it, Ackerman tries to make the case that the very fact that a veteran is familiar with military service is somehow improper or dangerous or "un-American" if a lefty could ever utter the word.
The final argument is nothing short of bigotry. Having never spent a day in uniform, Ackerman feels safe in concluding that the military services are somehow less embued with a "deep appreciation of democratic values and aspirations." I'd contend that serving as a private in an infantry platoon gives one much more an "appreciation for democratic values and aspirations" than being a member of the Yale Law faculty.
I guess this should be shocking. At a time where solemnized buggery is the law of the land in several states one would have thought that low-rent, neolithic bigotry would be absent from national political dialog. Back in 2003, Professor Philip Jenkins wrote a book called "The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice." He was wrong. Being anti-military, anti-veteran is not only an acceptable prejudice, it is a fashionable one.