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Could One of Pres. Trump’s Enduring Legacies Be Exposing a Decline in Civilian Control of the Military

A fascinating — and somewhat disconcerting — article appeared Saturday in Vanity Fair online.

Adam Ciralski. a contributing editor who was an attorney with the CIA and a staffer on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, published an article based on two weeks he spent embedded with Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, and his two top aides, Chief of Staff Kash Patel and Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen. Ciralsky inquired about embedding on January 4, and because of his background, he didn’t need any kind of long background investigation to be cleared. He settled into his embed on January 5, the day before the Capitol riots.

The article makes interesting reading on some of the “tick-tock” aspects of the events of January 5 and 6, with Miller, Patel, and Cohen contradicting some of the mainstream media reporting on how issues involving the deployment of National Guard troops into the Capitol was carried out.

Ciralski is clearly an anti-Trumper and a Democrat. He mixes in enough disparaging references to Pres. Trump to make that obvious. He also makes it clear that the three individuals who are the focus of his reporting were not altogether enamored with some of the actions of the President during that time he was with them. He even describes in some detail the reaction of Miller’s family to his being named Acting Defense Secretary — they were not fans of the Trump Administration and didn’t think the appointment was a positive for him.

Ciralski buries at the end of his article what seems to me to be by far the most important revelation from his piece. Maybe he’s saving a deeper dive on the topic for a later article. But the end of the story covers in somewhat truncated fashion the views expressed by Miller about the current status of civilian control over the Pentagon — basically, that there isn’t any.

Miller was a relatively obscure National Security official before being a surprise pick to become Acting Defense Secretary after the firing of Secretary Mark Esper on November 9.

Miller, 55, was a Green Beret and combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, retiring as a Colonel after having commanded Fifth Special Forces Group in both theaters. He also served in a military intelligence unit known only as “Task Force Orange” whose purpose was so secret that its name was rarely mentioned.

At the time he was named by Pres. Trump to take over DOD he was serving in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Prior to that, he was in DOD as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

So there is no question that Miller had deep roots in the Pentagon and DOD, especially on the Intelligence side.

I’m not going to recount the backgrounds of Patel and Cohen in detail. But Patel was the chief investigator for Devin Nunes when he was Chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and is largely credited with being the driving force behind the Committee’s efforts that uncovered the initial layers of duplicity by the Obama Administration DOJ and FBI investigation of Pres. Trump. His work produced the Majority Memorandum calling into question the use of the Steele Dossier memos to secure the FISA warrant on Carter Page. Cohen was an NSC senior staffer who came in with Gen. Michael Flynn and is thought to have inadvertently — or purposely — disclosed information as part of a privacy review that certain individuals connected to the Trump campaign had been subjected to FBI scrutiny prior to the election. This information found its way to Nunes.

The article speculates that Patel and Cohen — both favorites of Pres. Trump — were “assigned” to Miller when he was named Acting Secretary of Defense to make sure Miller and those around him acted in ways that would be approved by the White House in the aftermath of the contested election outcome. The article never attributes such suspicions to Miller, and nothing in the article suggests that Miller had any issues with either of them with respect to their work in the weeks they were together. Based on Ciralski’s reporting, there was nothing he observed consistent with the breathless claims in the media that Patel and Cohen were sent to DOD in order to prepare for an effort by Pres. Trump to remain in the White House regardless of the ultimate outcome of the election disputes that were taking place at the time.

But the most interesting part of the article covers the views developed by Miller during his short tenure with regard to the present-day functioning of the Pentagon as part of the Government, and Miller’s views on the status of civilian control over the military.

Sitting on his couch at the end of a surreal week, he finally took off the gloves. His target? The Defense Department itself, the largest organization in the world–and one he has served in various ways since he was 18. “This fucking place is rotten. It’s rotten.” Miller’s gravest concern, he said, involved a bedrock principle of American democracy: civilian control of the military. “When the system is weighted towards the Joint Staff and the geographic combatant commanders against civilian control, you know, we’ve got to rethink this.” He expressed a belief that by “idolizing and fetishizing” the top brass, members of Congress had ignored an erosion over time in the chain of command.

This is the end result of a nearly 20-year long military campaign in Afghanistan, and a shorter but more widespread war in Iraq. Those have combined to create a generation of “wartime” Generals who have now been “idolized and fetishized” to use Miller’s description. From James Mattis to David Petraeus — to name two of probably 20 or more semi-celebrity combatant commanders — we now have an industry of military experts whose Stars make them nearly impervious to civilian criticism. They are authors and sought-after talk show guests. But more significantly, they have come to be viewed as the top tier candidates for civilian posts in the Department of Defense after they retire.

This is a recent phenomenon, started by President Trump’s nomination of Mattis to be Defense Secretary. If you look back as far as the Reagan Administration you do not see a retired General Officer in the top civilian job. Nearly every person to have held that post as a confirmed Cabinet officer has been a politician — Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, William Cohen, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, and Leon Panetta.

But when you had politicians heading the Defense Department, the lower subcabinet officials in the various Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary positions were often retired military officers.

And now the last three Defense Secretaries are all individuals who reached high military ranks before retiring – Mattis, Esper, and Lloyd Austin. Was their active duty service background the reason why Miller found that military policy is now so compartmentalized by the Joint Chiefs and combatant commanders that it’s almost impossible for civilian leadership to obtain a complete picture of what was happening?

“We’re in a crisis mode,” Cohen had told me earlier. He said he and others had discovered that the Joint Chiefs were creating their own “security compartments” containing operational planning details “for the express purpose of hiding key information from career civilian and political leaders in the Pentagon”–up to and including the secretary of Defense. Talk about a deep state. “That means that policymakers were basing their decisions on partial information. It’s very dangerous and irresponsible, and that’s something I’ve actually highlighted in my conversations with [Biden’s] transition team.” I’ll admit it sounded loopy. To me it had all the elements of a Trump fever dream: The military and intelligence establishment was somehow scheming against the renegades. That is, until two other senior national security officials–with Miller and company–confirmed Cohen’s assertion.

The entire system,” Miller stated, “the intelligence community [included], is complicit in setting up all these compartments–so that only very select people actually have perspective and access to the entire picture. And then your question is, ‘Well, who are these people that have the complete picture?’ I felt like I finally did as acting SECDEF–to a point. I’m sure there’s still some stuff that was being compartmented. But I don’t know that for a fact.”

It is hard to know if the “compartmentalization” identified as a problem by Miller, Patel, and Cohen is something that the Defense Secretaries acquiesced to or if they had a role in actually fostering such an arrangement inside the Pentagon. Miller adds the “intelligence” community into the mix as well.

What seems to be worthy of some fear-driven analytical concern is the idea that “military” and “intelligence” components of the government have come to believe that they should have some form of “independence” from a politician in the White House or Defense Department. For the past four years, the Democrats have preached “independence” in this regard as some kind of “virtue” simply because they didn’t like or trust Pres. Trump. If what Miller expressed is accurate, let’s see if the retired General that Biden just appointed to the position is happy with what he finds, or if he pushes back against the idea of Pentagon and CIA “independence” from the control and oversight by political actors.

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