Austin rolls back Trump-era policy on special ops

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is partially reversing his predecessor’s last-minute decision to elevate the top civilian Pentagon official overseeing special operations matters, according to two defense officials and a memo obtained by POLITICO.

The policy shift is a mostly bureaucratic move within the department but continues the Biden administration’s broader push to undo Trump-era policies at the Pentagon. Most recently, President Joe Biden canceled all construction projects for former President Donald Trump’s southern border wall, which were paid for with money originally intended for military projects.

In November, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller made the surprise decision to elevate the position, known as the assistant secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict, to report directly to the defense secretary. After reviewing the change, Austin is moving the position back down to the Pentagon’s policy shop, but it will still retain a direct reporting line to him on administrative issues such as training, manning and equipping, according to two Pentagon officials who requested anonymity to discuss the topic ahead of an announcement.

The change will be “effective immediately,” according to a Wednesday memo signed by Austin that lays out the shift.

Biden last month announced his intent to nominate Christopher Maier, who served as director of the Trump administration’s Pentagon task force to defeat Islamic State, for the job. POLITICO first reported that Austin was considering reversing the Trump-era move in February.

Miller’s policy change, announced eight days after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, put civilian oversight of the special operations community on par with the civilian leaders of the military branches for the first time.

The move was seen as a way to promote the needs of America’s elite special operations forces, such as Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Marine Raiders. Miller is a former Green Beret.

The effort stemmed from experts’ assessment that civilian oversight of the special operations community had not kept pace with its size and scope, which has ballooned since the 9/11 attacks. This meant that military commanders, especially the head of Special Operations Command, end up making critical decisions that should be made by civilian leaders, for example on budget issues, experts argued.

Unlike many Trump-era decisions, such as banning transgender people from serving in the military or sending troops to the border wall, the decision to elevate the special operations role was not controversial. Experts and lawmakers have called for greater civilian oversight of the community in recent years, particularly after the fatal ambush of U.S. Special Forces in Niger in 2017 and a series of scandals that have plagued the Navy SEAL community.

Austin’s decision will keep the special operations position in a service secretary-like role for administrative matters, such as dealing with sexual assault and increasing diversity, the officials said. The position will retain the designation of “principal staff assistant,” a change established by Miller. The person will also continue to participate in senior leader meetings with the defense secretary, the deputy and the service secretaries.

But on others matters, such as broader policies regarding counterterrorism and irregular warfare, the official will report to the Pentagon policy chief, the officials said.

Ezra Cohen, who served in the special operations job on an acting basis under Trump, defended Miller’s change, saying that an “independent SOLIC will not diminish” policy coordination, but rather will allow the position “to be singularly focused on their statutory responsibility of providing civilian oversight” of special operations forces.

He also indicated that the move to split the position’s responsibilities is misguided, noting that the “dual reporting chain while simultaneously meeting congressional intent is not proven.”

The change is not a demotion, one of the officials said, rather an “optimization” of the reform Miller initiated. In particular, the person said the move to make the special operations role a principal staff assistant is a “sea change” for the community. The second official noted that while Miller initiated the change, it was not fully implemented until recently.

There is “a whole flight of meetings that ASD SOLIC or his senior reps are participating in now that we were shut out of prior, so we’re really happy to see that,” the first official said. “The voice of ASD SOLIC is being heard in these fora.”

The official stressed that Austin decided to keep “the good parts” of Miller’s change, including the principal staff assistant designation and inclusion in senior-level meetings. However, the defense secretary ultimately decided to “tweak” the placement of the position outside the policy shop.

In Austin’s view, this is in line with what lawmakers intended when they first mandated in the 2017 defense policy bill that the official overseeing special operations matters report directly to the secretary, the officials said.

The change will not affect oversight of operational decisions, the officials said, noting that most special operations forces missions are approved through the geographic combatant commanders, with input from the policymakers.

The news that Austin is moving special operations back under the policy shop marks just the latest reversal of Trump Pentagon policies. Biden recently reversed Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military and ordered 500 additional troops to Germany instead of moving forward with Trump’s planned cuts to the U.S. presence there.

Austin also ousted a number of last-minute Trump appointees to the Pentagon’s advisory boards in February.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is partially reversing his predecessor’s last-minute decision to elevate the top civilian Pentagon official overseeing special operations matters, according to two defense officials and a memo obtained by POLITICO.

The policy shift is a mostly bureaucratic move within the department but continues the Biden administration’s broader push to undo Trump-era policies at the Pentagon. Most recently, President Joe Biden canceled all construction projects for former President Donald Trump’s southern border wall, which were paid for with money originally intended for military projects.

In November, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller made the surprise decision to elevate the position, known as the assistant secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict, to report directly to the defense secretary. After reviewing the change, Austin is moving the position back down to the Pentagon’s policy shop, but it will still retain a direct reporting line to him on administrative issues such as training, manning and equipping, according to two Pentagon officials who requested anonymity to discuss the topic ahead of an announcement.

The change will be “effective immediately,” according to a Wednesday memo signed by Austin that lays out the shift.

Biden last month announced his intent to nominate Christopher Maier, who served as director of the Trump administration’s Pentagon task force to defeat Islamic State, for the job. POLITICO first reported that Austin was considering reversing the Trump-era move in February.

Miller’s policy change, announced eight days after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, put civilian oversight of the special operations community on par with the civilian leaders of the military branches for the first time.

The move was seen as a way to promote the needs of America’s elite special operations forces, such as Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Marine Raiders. Miller is a former Green Beret.

The effort stemmed from experts’ assessment that civilian oversight of the special operations community had not kept pace with its size and scope, which has ballooned since the 9/11 attacks. This meant that military commanders, especially the head of Special Operations Command, end up making critical decisions that should be made by civilian leaders, for example on budget issues, experts argued.

Unlike many Trump-era decisions, such as banning transgender people from serving in the military or sending troops to the border wall, the decision to elevate the special operations role was not controversial. Experts and lawmakers have called for greater civilian oversight of the community in recent years, particularly after the fatal ambush of U.S. Special Forces in Niger in 2017 and a series of scandals that have plagued the Navy SEAL community.

Austin’s decision will keep the special operations position in a service secretary-like role for administrative matters, such as dealing with sexual assault and increasing diversity, the officials said. The position will retain the designation of “principal staff assistant,” a change established by Miller. The person will also continue to participate in senior leader meetings with the defense secretary, the deputy and the service secretaries.

But on others matters, such as broader policies regarding counterterrorism and irregular warfare, the official will report to the Pentagon policy chief, the officials said.

Ezra Cohen, who served in the special operations job on an acting basis under Trump, defended Miller’s change, saying that an “independent SOLIC will not diminish” policy coordination, but rather will allow the position “to be singularly focused on their statutory responsibility of providing civilian oversight” of special operations forces.

He also indicated that the move to split the position’s responsibilities is misguided, noting that the “dual reporting chain while simultaneously meeting congressional intent is not proven.”

The change is not a demotion, one of the officials said, rather an “optimization” of the reform Miller initiated. In particular, the person said the move to make the special operations role a principal staff assistant is a “sea change” for the community. The second official noted that while Miller initiated the change, it was not fully implemented until recently.

There is “a whole flight of meetings that ASD SOLIC or his senior reps are participating in now that we were shut out of prior, so we’re really happy to see that,” the first official said. “The voice of ASD SOLIC is being heard in these fora.”

The official stressed that Austin decided to keep “the good parts” of Miller’s change, including the principal staff assistant designation and inclusion in senior-level meetings. However, the defense secretary ultimately decided to “tweak” the placement of the position outside the policy shop.

In Austin’s view, this is in line with what lawmakers intended when they first mandated in the 2017 defense policy bill that the official overseeing special operations matters report directly to the secretary, the officials said.

The change will not affect oversight of operational decisions, the officials said, noting that most special operations forces missions are approved through the geographic combatant commanders, with input from the policymakers.

The news that Austin is moving special operations back under the policy shop marks just the latest reversal of Trump Pentagon policies. Biden recently reversed Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military and ordered 500 additional troops to Germany instead of moving forward with Trump’s planned cuts to the U.S. presence there.

Austin also ousted a number of last-minute Trump appointees to the Pentagon’s advisory boards in February.

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