Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates On His New Book “A Passion For Leadership” (AnD Much More Including Hillary Clinton’s Server)
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joins me in hour three today to discuss his new book “A Passion for Leadership,” as well as the Iran deal, the North Korean provocation, DoD acquisition, carriers and Ohio Class Submarines –and Hillary’s server:
HH: As I promised, I’m so pleased to welcome back to the show former Secretary of Defense, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, former head of the Texas A&M University, Robert M. Gates. He has a brand new book, A Passion For Leadership: Lessons On Change And Reform From 50 Years Of Public Service, which I blew through like General McChrystal’s book, Team Of Teams. When someone like this writes a book like this, people who do what I do need to read it. Secretary Gates, welcome back, it’s great to have you on the program.
RG: Thank you. It’s good to be back.
HH: I want to go to Chapter 8 right way, Money, Money Money: Reforming In Scarce Times. And I do so, because if I could recommend to any of the candidates that they read one chapter of A Passion For Leadership, it would be this one. Many of those candidates, and I’ve been on the stage asking them questions, and many members of Congress speak about going back to the Gates budget, the Gates budget. I hear, I’ve heard about the Gates budget probably more now than I did when you put it together. When you hear that, does it still make sense for people to talk about the Gates budget?
RG: I do, because I think it was a budget built on what we thought was needed for defense of the country, and not one determined by sequester votes for politics on the Hill. It really was put together by the services under my auspices that spoke to the current and then future needs of the American military.
HH: It was written in 2010. You write on Page 187, “After the realization dawned on the national security, the bank was out of money.” But it was. It’s six years old. As I recall, it didn’t have a line for Ohio Class submarine replacement, OCRP. It was vague on aircraft carriers. Is it still a good doc to refer to on those two instances?
RG: Well, I think so. We had, there was no plan for building more than 11 aircraft carriers, or having more than 11 aircraft carriers. It did provide for the next generation carrier that’s now under construction, the Gerald R. Ford. And we still were enough years away from recapitalization of the nuclear triad that the Ohio Class submarine wasn’t in there, nor a new bomber, although that was in the, a new bomber was in the last budget that I submitted.
HH: The B-3 was selected and contracted with Northrop, recently. I’m curious, in these continuing times of strategic need, can we ever afford the triad, Secretary Gates?
RG: I guess the way I would put it is that we can’t afford not to. In the news recently, we’ve seen that North Korea is attempting to build a ballistic missile submarine that can launch missiles at the United States. By 2020, China will have 350 surface warships and submarines in the Asia-Pacific area. We’ll have about 70. And at a certain point, quantity takes on a quality all of its own. The Ohio Class has been around a long time. The key is, and where we started while I was still on the job, was to figure out a way to do it that was at least reasonably cost effective. One of the original plans called for a boat that would have been about $7 and a half billion dollars a copy. I think we got that down to using existing technologies, or proven technologies, down to about $4 and a half billion. It’s still very expensive. We don’t build a lot of them. But I think we do need to keep this nuclear capability viable as long as you have countries like Russia, China, North Korea and who knows, someday down the road, Iran having these nuclear capabilities.
HH: I’m talking with former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, whose brand new book, A Pasion For Leadership, is out, and he’s on a book tour, and I’m very grateful for the time he’s given us today to talk about this. I’m going to come back to acquisition in a second, Secretary Gates, but you brought up North Korea. Now for 20 years, I have been arguing with one of my closest friends in the world, a guy you know by the name of Dan Poneman, my college roommate, that the 1994 deal with Korea was a disaster. You and he, and a bunch of other people negotiated that. What do you think now? 21 years later, with them doing what they did, was it the right deal at the right time?
RG: Well, I’m, first of all, I know Dan very well, and I respect him. I would also note that I was out of office and had retired when they negotiated that. I frankly share your view that the agreement proved to be a disaster, but mainly because the North Koreans simply violated it. The terms of the agreement were reasonable, but when the North Koreans just walked away from it, we were left facing the same situation we had had before the negotiation.
HH: How does the reality of their conduct, post-agreement in 1994, how ought it to have informed our negotiations with the Iranians just concluded?
RG: Well, I think first of all, it’s very important not to trust these regimes. And we didn’t trust the Russians when we were doing arms control with the Soviet Union. I think that’s why frankly one of the worries I have about the Iranian deal was the failure to get the anytime, anyplace inspections, which the administration was telling us as late as April last year was an absolute necessity. And so I worry that the verification provisions whereby independently we can confirm that they’re abiding by the agreement are inadequate. There’s some good things about the agreement. Getting rid of 98% of their nuclear, enriched nuclear material, is a good thing. Transforming the Arak reactor so it can’t produce plutonium is a good thing. Getting rid of two-thirds of their centrifuges is a good thing. But I will say the other side of this, and it’s sort of the way I felt about North Korea, what’s missing is not the agreement, is not in the agreement itself other than the verification, as I said. But it was a strong statement simultaneous with signing the agreement that said that the United States was going to very aggressively push back against any Iranian attempts to use the new resources from the lifted sanctions to meddle in the Middle East, to interfere in the affairs of other governments, and so on. And clear statements of what more we were going to do in terms of military presence in the region, what more we were going to do for our friends and allies, what we were going to do diplomatically. The irony is the Ayatollah made just such a speech when the agreement was signed. He went out and said we’re not going to change anything. We’re still going to go after the great Satan. We are not changing any of our aspirations. We should have had a comparable statement.
HH: Well, President Obama did impose recently some sanctions on Iran as a result of their intercontinental ballistic missile test. Is that sufficient to the goal you just outlined, Secretary Gates?
RG: Well, I think, you know, it’s pretty clear that they postponed the decision to impose those sanctions until the hostages were released, and then ultimately our sailors were returned to us. But you know, it’s hard, I don’t know what the list of options was that was presented to the President, and whether this represents a small subset, or if this is as much as we thought we could do at the time. It seemed pretty small potatoes, frankly.
HH: So you were in office both in the run up to North Korea and the run up to Iran, but then you had left the scene when the actual deals were struck.
RG: Yeah, I had retired in January ’93.
HH: Right, and so you were not there for ’94, and you were not there for this one. Do you think both deals were a mistake?
RG: Well, I think that the ’94 deal clearly in retrospect was a mistake. I think that it’s too early to say this new agreement was a mistake. I think we wanted the agreement more than the Iranians did. I think that’s a bad position from which to negotiate. I do think it’s inadequate on the verification side by the administration’s own light. But it does accomplish some specific things. We just need now to be very aggressive in verification, and we need to be very aggressive in pushing back Iranian activities in other areas, including things like launching ballistic missiles and of firing shots across the bow of our aircraft carriers.
HH: Now Secretary Gates, you’ve been very critical of some of the rhetoric on the campaign trail. I wonder what you make of the rhetoric of repeal on day one the Iranian deal from many of the Republicans, if not all of them. Many of them have said day one, deal dead. Jeb Bush has said it’ll take a little bit longer to unwind, but what do you make of that particular rhetoric as opposed to the carpet bombing, and the bombing the blank out of them rhetoric?
RG: Well, I think that to say that right now, first of all, the questions that I would ask are, are you prepared to be isolated? You can’t re-impose sanctions, because nobody else will go along with you. So if you walk away from the agreement, do you give the Iranians an excuse to walk away, and at the same time, you won’t have diplomatic and political support of any other country to try and re-impose sanctions on them. So I think these are some of the of the real world considerations that would cause people to be cautious about making those kinds of promises, which once they are in office and have responsibility, may or may not make sense.
HH: Now when you, I know you’re not endorsing, or not endorsing anyone, but when you hear and see the poll numbers of Donald Trump, to what do you attribute the rise of him? What’s going on in the public that gives him that kind of robust national polling strength?
RG: Well, I think two things. First and foremost, I think both he and Senator Sanders have tapped into a very deep vein of disgust and loathing on the part of many Americans for their elected officials, and the polarization and the paralysis, the failure to address any of our problems of the country…
HH: All right, hold on to the second one, Secretary Gates. I’ll be right back. The first one is disgust with paralysis. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back with Robert Gates on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
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HH: So Secretary Gates, when we went to break, I had asked you what do you attribute the rise of and success of Donald Trump to without endorsing, and you said number one, he and Bernie Sanders have tapped into the disgust with Washington paralysis, with government. What was the second part of it?
RG: And with elected officials in general.
RG: The second is related, and that is that every day in America, Americans confront bureaucracies that are underperforming or broken. And many of those bureaucracies are created by government. There are some, and there are also bureaucracies in the private sector, but the inability of these bureaucracies to meet their needs and to understand that they serve the citizens rather than they boss the citizens, I think, is another source of frustration. Americans just, they face these institutions every single day, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get a permit to remodel your house, or whether you’re trying to deal with an insurance company, or whether you’re a veteran trying to deal with Veterans Affairs, or you’re looking at the Secret Service and all the scandals or the IRS, or the Emergency Management Agency, I mean, they look at all these agencies, and a lot of people basically say the government can’t do anything right. And the book is really to say government and the private sector, these bureaucracies can be reformed, they can be changed, and here’s how.
HH: Indeed. I made plenty of notes on this, because my last job in the Reagan administration was as deputy director of OPM and the general counsel of the agency before that after leaving the White House. And I’m amazed at your optimism. And then I went into private law practice, and I’ve been dealing with the federal environmental agencies for the next 25 years. And I am with Fukuyama quoting Paul Light. And so as I read through your book, you’re an optimist about leadership able to impact bureaucracy, but Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale says the essential question is shall the people rule the government, or shall the government rule the people? And at least in the environmental agencies, with which I have dealt for the last 25 years, it’s the government ruling the people, Mr. Secretary.
RG: Well, it’s, and what’s required is leaders that want to make these organizations responsive to the people they serve. And I was able to do that for wounded warriors, and partly, it is a matter of holding people accountable. I fired the Secretary of the Army for not doing his job adequately when it came to taking care of our patients, wounded warriors at Walter Reed. I fired the program director of the F-35 program for the cost overruns and mismanagement. I fired the chief of staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Air Force for a nuclear mishap with our bombers. So part of it’s accountability, but what I outline in the book really is here are the steps that you can take to make these bureaucracies responsive, and to make them serve the people they were created to serve. And the reason I’m optimistic is because I made it happen.
HH: Now I want to go specifically back to acquisitions, because to me, this is the nightmare issue for anyone coming in. If you’re an outsider entering the Pentagon bureaucracy, and you’re looking at the F-35 program, which you just referenced, and it’s still in trouble. We had to buy a bunch of F-18s in this new budget because the F-35 still isn’t up to status. The B-3 contract just got let. It’s controversial. How does any outsider actually find people with the skill sets they need that aren’t already cemented into positions that require them to not move?
RG: You know, part of the problem, Hugh, is ironic, because our ethics rules have become so strict that basically if you know anything about how to make these things work, you’re excluded from being considered for office.
RG: So if you’re, if you’ve worked as a Defense contractor, know how the Defense contractors negotiate, know how these things get done, know the mistakes that get made, you’re likely under current rules in the Obama administration, you can’t be hired as an assistant secretary or as a secretary of a military service. And so you bring in people that have no experience. They may be academics, they made be staffers from the Hill, but they have no practical experience in how these programs are run. So my view is we need to go back and look at that. And then, oh, by the way, you can’t go back to work in that industry for five years after you’ve been in government. So we need to go back and look at these ethics rules, and through transparency or other mechanisms, make is possible for the people who actually know something about these subjects to be appointed to run these agencies.
HH: And it is a dizzying level of complexity, which I try and communicate to the audience. I’ve toured the gear manufacturer of destroyer-class, and the fact that we only have one and a half extra gears for destroyers in the United States, and our industrial base has gotten so thin, I try and learn, but it’s so much information. How would a new president staff out a new political team?
RG: Well, one of the basic lessons in the book is first of all, if you’re the leader, you have to hire some highly-skilled subordinates, and people who know their business and who will be candid with you and honest with you, and give you their best estimate, even if you don’t want to hear it. Then, you’ve got to empower them and give them the authority to get the job done. And then you’ve got to leave them alone, but hold them accountable. And if they don’t do the job right, fire them. If they do do the job right, reward them. And this was one of my problems with the Obama administration was they centralized all of this authority in the White House, including operational authority. They didn’t trust the subordinate, and they didn’t empower them. They micromanaged them, and it’s one of the reasons I think they’ve had some problems on a lot of things.
HH: There seems to be a lot of dysfunction coming to light, and I know you’re not involved in the presidential race. But are you surprised by the news that continues to come out about the former Secretary of State’s server and the fact that the intelligence community’s inspector general has said there was a lot of very highly classified information on her server?
RG: Yeah, that’s a concern for me. I never used email when I was head of CIA or head of the Department of Defense. As I used to joke, I didn’t want to have some chief of station overseas email me and say he was going to do something if I didn’t get back to him in three hours, and I would get back from a five hour hearing to discover I was two hours too late. I preferred dealing with people face to face and putting a signature on a piece of paper on matters of real national security and importance.
HH: One of your colleagues, Mike Morell, said on this program, or actually agreed with my assertion that almost certainly, Russians, Chinese and Iranians had compromised the home brew server of the former Secretary of State. He agreed with that. Do you agree with his assessment of my assessment?
RG: Well, given the fact that the Pentagon acknowledges that they get attacked about 100,000 times a day, I think the odds are pretty high.
HH: And so if they had real time access to her server, would that have compromised national security?
RG: Well, again, it would depend entirely on what she put on there. And I just, I haven’t read any of these emails, so I don’t know what was on those servers.
HH: Okay, enough of politics. I don’t want to take you there. I want to take you back to the book. A Passion For Leadership is the brand new book by Robert M. Gates, subtitle is Lessons On Change And Reform From 50 Years Of Public Service. We’re going to come back and talk about a memo he wrote in 1970 when he was two years into the CIA, that advises the CIA to change everything, and whether or not it is a, well, presumptuous for a young staffer to say such a thing.
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HH: So Mr. Secretary, going back to the aircraft carrier for a second, you reference that you gave a speech at the Navy League that turned up a little heat under you. Did you call, at that point, did you call into question the 11 carrier groups? Is that what got, you didn’t tell us the specifics of why, you just said people were unhappy with you.
RG: Well, what I said was that you know, thinking in terms of China’s development of very accurate long-range cruise and ballistic missiles that could be used against our Navy ships, I really wasn’t calling for any reduction in the number of aircraft carriers. What I was saying was maybe we ought to rethink how he use them in conflict. And one of the things in the back of my mind, I didn’t talk about it then, but it’s now public, is, for example, the development of potentially long-range drones that would be used off of aircraft carriers. So you could keep them at greater distance from those missiles and other potential threats to the carriers.
HH: Retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendricks has written a study, Retreat Beyond Range, in which he suggested a remixing of forces. But at the same time, people like John Kasich, no new newbies, he’s been around a long time to Defense, suggests we need 15 carrier groups. And Hendricks has pointed out to me a Ford carrier is, you can get two Nimitz-class carriers for one Ford carrier in terms of dollars. Are we completely screwed up on this with no strategic vision, Mr. Secretary?
RG: Well, we went from, I think, 16 carriers at the end of the Cold War to the current 10. And my own view is you know, given the fact that our deployments now are so long because of the overdue maintenance and the fact that some of our sailors are at sea for eight and nine and ten months instead of the six months that was the preferred six months on, six months off, and the fact that we don’t, we’ve gone through a period of a number of months without even having a carrier in the Persian Gulf, I think is a problem. I personally would think that adding some carriers, and you know, I’m prepared to be open on whether more Nimitz-class or more Ford-class, but as I say often, at a certain point, quantity has a quality all of its own.
HH: Among all of the people running, John Kasich probably has the most actual acquisition. He killed the B-1. You’re very blunt. You killed, what, two dozen, maybe three dozen programs?
RG: Three dozen.
HH: Three dozen programs, so what do you make of his skill set for these particular challenges versus everybody else’s?
RG: Well, I had, I guess I have a little different perspective, because my recollection is that Jimmy Carter killed the B-1.
HH: Okay, well, John was the chairman of the House Budget Committee. He likes to claim a little credit for that.
RG: No, the Republicans wanted to keep the B-1, and the reason that Carter was willing to kill it was because he knew that in secret, we were developing the stealthy B-2.
HH: And so not a bad decision? And what do you make of Kasich’s abilities, vis-à-vis the other candidates in the race?
RG: Well, you know, I just don’t want to get into the different candidates. I’ve known Kasich when I was interim dean of the Bush school at Texas A&M, the George H.W. Bush school of government and public service. I contracted with John and a former Senator, Democratic Senator, to together come down and speak several times at the school. So you know, I think he’s a smart guy, but I don’t know him well, and I frankly haven’t followed it close enough to know what his positions are on a lot of things.
HH: My hook back into A Passion For Leadership from that question is not because I’m in favor of Kasich. I’m as neutral as you are, but because at one point in A Passion For Leadership, you write that when you were two years into the CIA, you wrote a study urging the complete overhaul of the analytics of the Soviet Union, which you say in a parenthetical, somewhat presumptuous for someone at the agency for two years, which is in fact an admission that experience counts, isn’t it?
RG: Well, yes, but I also write in the book that I, one of the things that I found was speaking to the people on the front lines. As the leader of an organization talking to people on the front lines, people, junior people, junior officers, junior NCO’s in Afghanistan and Iraq, I learned a lot of things about what was going on in those theaters that I wasn’t being told by the generals, and in some cases, that I don’t think the generals knew. And so I think it’s important to listen to the professionals, and even if they’re fairly new. You know, the reality is a new employee may have an insight and a perspective that somebody that’s been in a place 30 years might not have.
HH: Fascinating. Be right back with Robert Gates.
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HH: Secretary Gates, this is a great book, fascinating. I’ve interviewed Vice President and former SecDef Cheney many times, ditto with Don Rumsfeld. This is my second time with you. Does the current Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, or any prior Secretary of Defense ever get the band back together and ask all the formers to come in and just talk?
RG: Well, I, no. I think that Secretary Rumsfeld during his tenure would invite people to come in and sit down and talk with him, not necessarily his predecessors, but people who had experience in government. The only reason I know that is because I got two or three of those invitations, which I was never able to take advantage of. But I do think that most people do reach out from time to time to individual predecessors. I don’t think that there’s an effort to bring them all together, but I think that there is an opportunity to reach out and talk to individual people. For example, when I was, when the Obama administration first came in, I talked to my predecessor from the Clinton administration, William Perry, because Ash Carter had worked for him, and Ash was being recommended for a senior position in the Department working for me. And I knew that Perry had worked with him and knew him. So I reached out and consulted with him, and my successors, all of them at one time or another, have reached out from time to time to talk to me. But in terms of getting the gang together, not really.
HH: All right, now let me ask you about the part of the book where you write about your time at the CIA when you did the task force, because I asked Chris Christie in the first hour about this section and one other thing which I’ll come back to. When you took over the CIA on December 4th, 1991, you empaneled 14 task forces, then ten more. I asked Christie if he had done that, and he said he absolutely did that at the U.S. Attorney’s office. You break people out of their cubicles, you cross organizational lines, you do all that. How often, though, can you do that exercise? That might have been necessary at the end of the Cold War, because it’s not long into your watch to see the Soviet Union collapse. You do have to rethink it. But if every CIA director does that, you’ll never be out of task force mode.
RG: Well, first of all, I think you do have to be careful, and for, when I was Secretary of Defense, I think at the end of the day, I had maybe three or four task forces. And so it depends on the circumstances. But there are times when you just have to break the bureaucratic concrete and get people out of their ordinary work environment. And organizations, sometimes, work, communicate pretty well up and down, but very few communicate very well laterally. And where one part of the organization knows what another part of the organization did. One of the phrases commonly used in the Defense Department is to basically say that’s none of my business, is if a subject came up, a general or someone would say well, that’s not in my lane. And I came to hate that, because the truth is the lane is the Defense Department. And if you’ve got a good, if you’re in Organization X, and you see a problem in Organization Y, I want to hear about it. And so getting this lateral communication together is one of the things that task forces do for you. But like I say in the book, you can’t let them run unconstrained.
HH: Oh, you give them time limits. That was very important. I noted that.
RG: Yeah, you’ve got to have very short deadlines. Of all those task forces I had at CIA, I think the longest ones had a deadline of three months.
HH: That’s is a takeaway from this book for any senior leadership, is you can’t let these things run forever. I noted that. A couple of one offs here. I have heard from my limited access in the Pentagon that Fighting Joe Dunford, not surprisingly, is much beloved already inside of the building. But he’s limited. He’s got two two-year terms, right? Is that a good law that we limit the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to two two-year terms?
RG: No, and when I testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Defense reform last, I guess, December, one of the recommendations I made was that the chairman and vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff have a four year time, just like service chiefs do. The chief of staff of the Army and the other services all have four year terms. I don’t see any reason. The problem of two two-year terms is that it forces a chairman to go up and midway through what might be a normal run of three, of two terms, he’s got to defend every decision and every recommendation he made, and defend the policies of the president he’s working for. And it’s just politically incredibly awkward, and I think it diminishes the effectiveness and the strength of the chairman. So I would make it a four year term, in no small part because of the president gets unhappy with him, or the Secretary of Defense, they can fire him.
HH: And would you then also allow for a second term? Or would you keep it at one four-year term?
RG: I think I would keep it at one four-year term. You do have to keep the process fresh. You have to keep opening these positions up, and that is the long, well, with the exception of the fellow who runs the nuclear propulsion part of the Navy, it’s a holdover from the Admiral Rickover days, that position has an eight-year term. But other than that one job in the whole Pentagon, no other military job has a term any longer than four years.
HH: I’m talking with Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense. His brand new book is A Passion For Leadership: Lessons On Change And Reform From 50 Years Of Public Service. You’ve been very generous with your time, but national security stuff is complicated. It’s very difficult to communicate with the public about, Secretary Gates. And even though we’ve got a great new generation of Sunday how hosts in Dickerson, Tapper and Todd, it sounds like a law firm, but they’re there, and there are some great reporters. What’s a SecDef’s obligation vis-à-vis the public to talk to them about these issues?
RG: Oh, I think that the, there is a public education role that the Secretary of Defense has to perform in terms of informing people of what is going on, what initiatives he’s undertaking, how things are going, if for no other reason than to be able to point to specific things about the military that Americans can be proud of, at the same time dealing with some of the criticisms that people may be reading about. I will tell you, I frankly took advantage of opportunities to deal with the press, because when I began reform efforts, being able to talk about those in public and make public what I was trying to do gained political support, for example, for when I cut those three dozen programs. Going public and explaining why I was cutting them and so on, led to a big ground wave, groundswell of public support, which frankly made it difficult for the Congress to oppose me.
HH: One more quick segment with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. His brand new book, A Passion For Leadership, is linked over at Hughhewitt.com.
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HH: Short segment, Mr. Secretary. I quoted a Chris Christie from Page 25 of your book about Jacques Barzun saying to govern well requires two distinct kinds of ability – political skill and the administrative mind. Both are very rare, either in combination or separately. And you go on there. Do you think they’re getting even rarer given American politics today and the sort of creative destruction of new media on everyone?
RG: Yes, I do. I think a lot of people who have the skills to be effective leaders refrain from doing so, or don’t sign up because of the publicity that, and the attacks that often follow from elected officials and various others. It’s become pretty onerous to do public service at a senior level in the American government. And I guess one of the major points of the book is that leaders, there is a need for leaders at all levels in all kinds of organizations. And what I’ve tried to do in this book is say no matter at what level, whether you’re supervising three people or three million, there are some techniques that work in every case, and that’s what I write about.
HH: It’s very well presented. Congratulations on a very good book. What are you doing next? I mean, do you ever relax?
RG: Well, I’m kind of getting up there in years. You know, maybe I’ll take a few days off.
HH: Okay, I was just going to say, well, thank you for spending time with us, a terrific book, A Passion For Leadership. Secretary Gates, have a great weekend. Are you in D.C. for the snow massacre that’s coming in?
RG: In fact, I will be. I’m headed there this evening.
HH: Well, good luck getting there. I’m not, you get a four-wheel drive and buckle up. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
End of interview.