US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has terminated hundreds of members from 42 Pentagon advisory boards, part of an aggressive bid to oust appointees brought on in the waning days of the Donald Trump administration.
Austin ordered a far-reaching review of the advisory boards, suspending their operations and dismissing all of their members, which number in the hundreds, according to a memo obtained by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Set for completion by June, Austin said the review would re-focus the committees’ efforts to “align with our most pressing strategic priorities and the National Defense Strategy.”
“As an interim step, I am directing the immediate suspension of all advisory committee operations until the review is completed,” Austin wrote in the memo, dated Saturday, adding “I also direct, no later than February 16, 2021, the conclusion of service for all DoD [Department of Defense] advisory committee and subcommittee members.”
No committee or subcommittee member will perform any work until properly appointed, unless they have an active appointment.
The Pentagon advisors offer expertise in a number of areas, including business practices, policy and personnel issues. While many serve without pay, a defense official told USA Today the boards cost “several million dollars” to run each year.
The move comes after former president Trump rushed through a number of last-minute appointments to the boards before his term ended on January 20, among them retired Army Brigadier General Anthony Tata, who was rejected by the Senate after he was tapped to serve as the Pentagon’s top policy official, with lawmakers citing controversial Twitter posts. Other recent Trump appointments include former campaign officials Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, as well as former Air Force pilot Scott O’Grady, who has echoed Trump’s repeated claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 race.
In purging the advisory boards en masse, Austin avoided singling out specific officials, which could give the appearance the decision was politically motivated, instead clearing house and starting over from scratch. The defense secretary believed that was the “most fair, most equitable way” to approach the issue, a defense official recently told reporters.
Nonetheless, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby openly acknowledged the move was prompted by the late Trump appointments, suggesting it has much to do with ousting the former president’s allies from positions of influence
“There’s no question … that the frenetic activity that occurred to the composition of so many boards in just the period of November to January deeply concerned the secretary and certainly helped drive him to this decision,” said Kirby.
Austin hinted that a review was coming last week after he suspended appointments of Trump picks for the defense advisory boards, outright blocking nominees from taking their posts. The procedure can take months given that members could be granted access to classified material and must be vetted for security clearances. Austin has halted that process.
Among the dozens of boards slated for review is the body established to advise name changes for various military bases dubbed after Confederate generals. Though Trump vocally opposed the changes, Austin will tap four new members for the board to see them through.
In addition to the advisory board purge, the new Joe Biden administration embarked on a number of other defense policy changes immediately upon taking office, some more substantial than others. While on one hand, Biden has reversed Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, he is also likely to overturn his predecessor’s plan to pull out from Afghanistan. A senior NATO official told Reuters this week that the new administration wants to avoid a “hasty withdrawal” – apparently believing that two decades of bloody conflict in America’s longest war isn’t quite long enough.
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