Category Archives: Interviews

A Conversation with Belfer Center Director and Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

By Andrew Poulin

Andrew Poulin: Good afternoon, my name is Andrew Poulin, President of the Center for International Maritime Security. I am privileged to be here today with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter here at Harvard University. Mr. Secretary, if you would in traditional CIMSEC fashion, please briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

Secretary Ash Carter: Thank you, Andrew. I’m Ash Carter, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former Secretary of Defense.

Andrew: Thank you Mr. Secretary, it’s an honor to sit down with you today at the Belfer Center. The first question we have for you is that, today many senior defense leaders and scholars have described the current international security environment as the most complicated since WWII. How do you see the security environment, and are there latent threats that haven’t received enough attention?

Secretary Carter: The threats that are immediately apparent and that the Secretary of Defense needs to pay attention to today – I always describe it as “the Big 5” – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. All different. Some actual enemies, some only potential enemies. But, these are all the things we need to have operations plans at the ready for protecting ourselves and deterring today. When you’re the Secretary of Defense, you’re also the Secretary of Defense of tomorrow. And that means, making sure that the two principal things that make the U.S. military the finest fighting force the world has ever known – namely our people and our technology – will be as good tomorrow as they are today.

That’s why Force of the Future was so important to me as a personnel management tool, and why working with the tech sector and acquisition reform was so important to me. And responsiveness, like the MRAP in Afghanistan, was so important, because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow and somebody’s going to be your successor. You will need to have left for them as fine an institution as you inherited from your predecessors. So, you are the Secretary of Defense of today and tomorrow.

Andrew: Great, if I could follow up on that, Mr. Secretary, on the five threats you mentioned, certainly they are all getting a lot of attention nowadays. Is there something that you think is not getting enough attention today that could impact the security environment – whether it’s climate change, a biological threat, or something else?

Secretary Carter: There are other things that are not matters of imminent threat that require immediate war plans or action which you keep an eye on for the future. Arctic security is an example of that, it’s not an emergency, but it’s not something we’re ignoring either. It just doesn’t make it to the list of the top five in terms of imminent threat.

Andrew: You were right at the epicenter of the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific – since you have left office, there have been a few developments, such as withdrawal from TPP, North Korea nuclear tests, to name a few. What are your thoughts on the evolving relationship between the U.S. and the region? 

Secretary Carter: Well, this is the single part of the world of greatest consequence for Americans of the future, and the rebalance was a way of recognizing that. The Middle East is tumultuous but fundamentally isn’t as important to our future because half of the world’s people, half of the world’s economic activity, is in the Asia-Pacific. And there are two big issues there – one is China and one is North Korea. Now North Korea has always been a kind of separate issue – everybody in the region treats it as geopolitically separate from the big issues of China, United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia. Those are the big moving parts. So, let me set aside North Korea for a moment.

The rebalance was really about the change in power dynamics, which the Chinese like to say is about their rise, but they’re not the only rising Asian military power. Japan is rising from its post-WWII mentality of defeat and pacifism. India is emerging as a military power. Vietnam has no love lost with respect to China. And in general, this is a region that has no NATO, where the wounds of the past are not healed, and there is no automatic way that peace is kept. And the United States has been one of the principal factors that has kept that stability. That stability will continue to be something we need to work on. China in particular, needs to be pushed back on where it is overweening. So that’s the principal strategic dynamic behind the rebalance.

Separately with respect to China, which gets to TPP, it is the economic arena, which is not entirely separate from the strategic arena, which is why I would say as Secretary of Defense that TPP is a strategic issue. It is for the following reason: China is a communist country and a one-party state, we all need to be realistic about that. Insofar as trade is concerned, that means China can behave in ways that we do not behave – anti-competitive, intellectual property theft, exclusion of American companies, and repression of the Internet. Unilateral decision-making is an advantage that allows China to coercively pick off one company or one country at a time, it’s the reason that they’ll win a game that simply becomes one of no rules and bilateral trade deals.

And that is why abandoning rules-based multilateral schemes like TPP is bad for American companies. We are leaving them and all of the people they might trade with, in Southeast Asia and so forth, to the mercy of the Chinese, acting as though China is like a big France. It’s not. It’s a communist country, let’s be realistic.

Andrew: A great deal of your career has been focused on nuclear weapons and reducing the threat of proliferation, how do you think the U.S. should approach the solution to North Korea?  There have been widespread discussions that any military solution would not be a solution at all and would have catastrophic consequences. How do you look at the problem and how can the military better support diplomatic efforts?

Secretary Carter: In the real world, there are not diplomatic solutions and military solutions, there are just solutions. It needs to be said, before we get to what I call coercive diplomacy, which is what I hope we would do at this juncture: the other things that we must do, because any form of coercive diplomacy may not work, are deterrence and defense. These need to come first. And that’s where missile defense comes in, and our forces on the peninsula, and what weapons we’re willing to place there and give to South Korea. So, deterrence and defense first and foremost.

Secondly though, we should give diplomacy a try, both because it might work, and because if the worst is to come, we will be better positioned for having tried it. The way that should work, to my way of thinking, is that you say to North Korea, “If you test another missile, here’s what will happen to you. If you don’t, here’s what the Chinese might do for you.” You work that out in advance with the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Chinese and us. And you pose it as their choice before they act. Right now, we tend to go to the UN to punish them, or go to the Chinese to punish them after they do something, which is certainly justified and emotionally satisfying, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. So, we should try to get out in front of their decision cycle with the carrots and sticks, that’s what coercive diplomacy should be – and it’s coercive because there are sticks as well as carrots. That’s what I hope we will do.

Andrew: Innovation has become a buzzword in the Defense Department today. What is your definition of innovation, and how can leaders up and down the chain of command really encourage and foster that environment?

Secretary Carter: Well, that’s a really good question because a lot of people only think about technological innovation, but that’s only one kind of innovation. There’s doctrinal innovation, there’s innovation in how we recruit, train, and retain talent. Just to take that one – out in the world around us, there is a revolution going on in how talent management is done. We can’t use all of those techniques, but we ought to pay attention to them and draw upon them.

Doctrinal is meant by, and we can’t go into detail on this but your readers will know some of this, that I was constantly telling our people who draw up our war plans that they need to look at them again and again and say ‘Is this really the best approach?’ And we had some that were not up-to-date in that regard. I, for example, did not think our China plan was where it needed to be until Sam Locklear and Harry Harris began working on it. Mike Scaparrotti and Vince Brooks did a great job with the plans for the North Korean peninsula, of which there are several.

And then of course is the matter of technological innovation. The key is to keep us connected to the commercial and international tech base, because we have a big tech base of our own, but it’s not enough anymore. It was enough 50 years ago because there was nothing much outside of the Pentagon’s five walls, but now there’s a lot and we’re not going to be the “firstest with the mostest” as Lyndon Johnson would say, unless we’re connected to the big world of tech out there.

Andrew: One issue I’ve heard you speak and write about before is that you seem very passionate about is developing the next generation of leaders. Not many people would come from your background of being a double major in physics and medieval history, and then go on to be Secretary of Defense. Can you briefly walk us through your own life of service and what lessons you took that now informs how you look at developing the next generation of leaders today?

Secretary Carter: As there are in the lives of all people, a certain amount of chance and accident. You don’t plot this out – you don’t start out at twenty-two years old and say “I think I’ll be Secretary of Defense of the United States.” I had no knowledge of or ambition for public life at all. I was asked as a young physicist to work on a technical problem of importance to defense where my knowledge was thought to be able to make a contribution. That was the issue of how to base the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. And it was supposed to be for just one year…36 years later I walked out of the Pentagon last January!

But I was struck by the seriousness of the issue with which I was dealing. It was the height of the Cold War, so nuclear annihilation was at stake. I could make a difference, in this case, because of my technical knowledge, and if that knowledge were not present in the room, a good decision would not have been made. And I thought, “Well, that really is a good feeling.” It mattered that I was there for something that was big. What better feeling in life can you get than that? So, you can go out and sell stuff and that I’m sure that is satisfying, but that’s not the same as saving the world from nuclear annihilation! Or, you can be a cog in the wheel of government and feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re there or not there.

And I had those two things come together for a moment, and that grabbed me. The other thing that was big was that there were people, military and civilian, in the generation above me that reached down and identified me and said, “Hey, keep doing that.” One of them was Jim Schlesinger who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and another one was Brent Scowcroft who was George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, and another was Bill Perry, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.  

Andrew: Good mentors to have!

Secretary Carter: They were wonderful. They were everything that you would want – they were people of tremendous ability, patriotism, and dedication, but also very decent people who cared about tomorrow and not just today. It mattered to them that they developed the people who came after them. And so, they spent a little of their time and their energy paying attention to somebody who was a nobody because maybe I would stick with it. So, you ask, how do I have such a strong interest in our people in the military and DoD generally? It’s because somebody paid attention to me and it made a difference.

Andrew: Following up on that, how would you characterize your leadership philosophy – is it what you just outlined – take care of your people – is it reach forward while also reaching back?

Secretary Carter: I think my leadership philosophy is, have very high standards but also get the best out of people. And that means being strict when their conduct is not up to standard. But also making sure that you’re always getting them to do their best and giving them attention and credit so they are doing their best. The people that work for you are force multipliers. And I had the great fortune of having 2.8 million of them, and I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world, because if I only gave them a chance they would do spectacular things, and they did time and time again. That’s the way to do it. Of course, on the other end, it takes the excellent people that we have there and that’s why I’ll be proud to have been part of the Department of Defense of the United States of America for the rest of my life.

Andrew: One last question, is there anything you are reading currently or books that you read in the past that shaped you or are influential in looking forward?

Secretary Carter: I read the memoirs of people who came before us. And it’s good to remember that we owe something to those who come after us. And it matters that we do the right things. It also matters that we act decently and that we behave ourselves because our children our watching.

Andrew: Great, well thank you so much for your time Mr. Secretary, it was an honor to have you join us today.

Secretary Carter: Good to be with you Andrew. You have a great organization.

The Honorable Ash Carter was the 25th Secretary of Defense and is currently serving as the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 Andrew Poulin is the President of CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to attendees of a ceremonial swearing in in the Pentagon Auditorium, March 6, 2015. (DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released)

Dr. John Kuehn on The Navy’s General Staff

By Chris Nelson

Professor John Kuehn’s new book, America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, 1900-1950, is a detailed and fascinating look at how the U.S. Navy’s General Board began at the turn of the 20th century and evolved into what would become the core of U.S. naval planning and strategy.

Dr. Kuehn, a military history professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, joins us to discuss his new book.

Christopher Nelson: Professor Kuehn, your book, Agents of Innovation, was also about the Navy’s General Staff. How is this book different?

John Kuehn: The difference is time period and focus. Agents (my nickname for it) covered naval innovation in the interwar period, 1919 to 1937, as affected by the Board, by War Plan Orange, and by the Washington and other naval conferences. The coverage of that innovation was episodic, not comprehensive, and the focus was on three case studies – battleship modernization, naval aviation, and mobile, at sea, basing. America’s First General Staff (AFGS) instead looks at the complete “life” of a relativity small organization that had a big impact at the strategic and policy levels. In short, AFGS gives another 30 years of the story while filling in some gaps for the 1920s and 1930s, as well as explaining how the organization came about.

CN: For readers who might have little or no understanding of the Navy’s General Board,  could you briefly describe what it was and its purpose?

JK: The General Board was a small group, about the size of a war college seminar, or smaller—generally from six to 12 officers, mostly captains and admirals, although they had non-member junior officers sometimes assigned and who were mentored by the senior ones. It was somewhat like the recently disestablished CNO strategic studies group (CNO-SSG)—but smaller and more independent. It was created in 1900 to serve as an “experiment” or proof of concept for the Secretary of the Navy for a naval general staff, which the naval reformers like A.T. Mahan, Stephen Luce, and Henry Taylor had been agitating for. As a naval general staff it did all those things one would expect a naval general staff to do, and in 1902 part of it went to sea! In other words, its primary job was contingency planning for crises and war—war planning—but it slowly extended its influence into all facets of the Navy, especially mobilization planning and fleet design. But it was primarily a shore and a peacetime staff, which was when it did its best work.

After 1909 it was the “balance wheel” or umpire for all ship designs in terms of what warships were being designed to do in war (or as deterrents in peace). After 1916 its war planning function migrated to CNO. Some bureaus kept forwarding their war plans inputs to the Board for years afterwards and CNO always had war planners at key hearings. I argue in the book that in many ways CNO became the operational naval general staff, while the small General Board, never more than 12 members or so, remained a sort of strategic and policy level executive body.

CN: A primary responsibility of the board was to produce reports on numerous topics. What were some of those reports? How valuable were they?

JK: They are known as General Board studies –their primary written product–but referred to by the Board as “serials.” I explain them rather well in Agents in my chapter on the General Board Process (chapter 3). As you can see Agents and AFGS really are a set, they complement each other.

The serials were extremely valuable because they went to the Secretary of the Navy, who had no SECDEF over him most of the time of the Board’s life, and set Navy policy on everything from uniforms to disarmament agreements to priority of naval construction. Especially critical for the historian are the 420 series “policy” serials that cover general naval policy (and strategy) as well as building policy and priority. These are my favorites. Reading them is like reading from a book of prophecy—they predicted so many things that eventually happened. Another great series are the arms limitations serials, the 438 series, that informed the Secretary of the Navy of the Board’s advice and recommendations about upcoming arms conferences at Geneva or London after Washington in 1922. 449 series are the ones on naval aviation. Anything with naval aviation is entertaining because of all the characters—Moffett, Turner, King, Mitscher, Towers, Mustin—that were involved with the hearings and the writing. Those guys had color in their language. The studies folders don’t just include the various drafts of the serials, but also the background material, so you get to read handwritten notes by Moffett for example. What an amazing organizational leader.

Most of the studies had an associated hearing that went with them. This is all indexed, by the General Board, and now on microfilm (or digitized by me). I haven’t digitized or organized everything yet, though!

CN: How did the board support the CNO through the long and valuable “Fleet Problem” series that ran from the early 1920s to the beginning of WWII?

JK: CNO, the Naval War College, and the Board worked hand-in-glove for most of the interwar period, even after CNO was no longer a member in 1932. Ironically, I think Pratt separated himself from the Board to give it more independence, not less, but it worked the other way, giving subsequent CNOs more power over time until King arrived and swept all the organizations of the Navy before him as he unified command as CNO/COMINCH. However, when given the chance to get rid of the Board, King proved instrumental in ensuring Nimitz did not abolish it, and he tried, believe me, after the war. Nimitz was being advised by wartime guys who valued war experience over the more careful methodical processes of the Board, guys like Ramsay and especially Mick Carney (Halsey’s chief of staff at Leyte Gulf).

Here is how it worked circa 1928. The war college would war game “strategic problems” at the college and then “hot wash” (AAR) these games. The results would go, as Al Nofi discusses in his great study (To Train the Fleet for War, Naval War College Press), to the CNO war plans division and the Fleet (i.e. the Fleet Commander and staff, CINCUS Fleet) and the agenda for the fleet problems for the annual exercise established. Not all the NWC stuff made it to the fleet problems, and sometimes the fleet problems dealt with stuff not gamed the previous year at NWC, but it was the interaction and feedback loops that were key—naval messages and talking back and forth between an informed officer corps. The General Board received inputs and feedback from these games and exercises, from the Fleet, from the war plans division of OpNav, and from the NWC in constructing its 420 -2 building priorities and warship designs, as well as its positions for the naval conferences. They would turn what was going on into policy and force structure. 

This is an oversimplification, but the process here was iterative, ongoing, and they managed to work through, either in NWC, in the hearings of the Board, and in the fleet during the annual exercises, most of the dynamics for most of the problems faced by the Navy in World War II. The closest thing to it outside the U.S. was the stuff being done by Hans von Seeckt and his small officer corps with the Reichswehr in the Weimar Republic.

I do not say these U.S. Navy entities necessarily “solved” those problems, but institutionally the Navy officer corps understood the framework of its problems as well, or better, than any other naval officer corps on the eve of war.

CN: How do the Navy’s bureaus and aide system fit into this story? Did they complement or cause friction?

JK: The Bureaus quite naturally opposed the Board’s creation and its influence, generally, unless they were led by a reformer like Henry Taylor or Bradley Fiske, then they worked with the Board. Fiske helped created the Aide system, which for your readers was a system from 1909 onward that created super-Bureau Chiefs, if you will, who handled material, operations, etc. They were aides not just to the Secretary of the Navy, but to the Board. But the aides were all part of the General Board system. As were some of the Bureaus…whose chiefs would sometimes be assigned on a temporary basis to the Board. Over time the bureaus collaborated effectively with the Board—especially the Bureaus of Aeronautics and Construction & Repair—which they saw as something of a reasonable counterweight to the increasingly powerful OpNav (CNO) staff. However, World War II changed all of that and both the bureaus and the Board lost power and influence that went to OpNav during that war. I explain all of that in this book.

As for the aide system, it went away with CNO’s creation in 1915 and until 1932 the Board and CNO collaborated effectively because CNO was an ex officio member of the board, although often not its chairman. The head of the Naval War College, the head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps were also on the Board during that time as ex officio members. The chairman was usually the senior retired Navy admiral still on active duty—but would always revert to rear admiral rank when no longer in a four star billet. Again, World War II changed much of this. I like the pre-World War II system and that is why I put the Board in civilian clothes as the picture of the dust jacket of my book. I think if not in service billet or global combatant or theater command, all flag officers should revert to two stars. That system worked for over 180 years.

The other organization that worked hand-in-glove with the Board, from 1900 until the Pratt decision in 1932 to pull the ex officio members off of the Board, was the Naval War College. AFGS offers much more discussion of this key decision and its long-term impact than does Agents. More to follow.

CN: In your book, you describe in detail some of the more outspoken and influential naval officers responsible for the success of the General Board.  In your mind, who were the top three or four officers who, in different ways, shaped these organizations?

JK: I have mentioned several of them already—Henry Taylor, and of course the one and only President of the Board, George Dewey. But Taylor was Dewey’s right-hand man and I do not think the Board would have come to fruition without him, at least in the way it did. Even so, as I argue, Dewey ensured its long-term success by simply living so long and also influencing things with a very light touch. Dewey was a master of organizational leadership using what the Army calls “mission command”—but Dewey’s approach was more German, he really gave general guidance and left his subordinates, like Fiske, room to make decisions. Dewey provided what today we call “top cover.” As Admiral of the Fleet, (the only one in American history), Dewey could do that.

Admiral Dewey the “Hero of Manila”(The Library of Congress, Dewey papers)

I mentioned Bradley Fiske, he was another key member of the Board, although he came to see it as not Prusso-German enough to be to effectively fight the Germans, who he and Dewey saw as the main enemy. Fiske engineered the creation of CNO to get a “real” naval general staff, but was frustrated in becoming its head, but Fiske played his role. Instead the cagey, and often maligned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels made the shrewd pick of William Benson, already serving on the General Board, as first CNO. Fiske was a fascinating, brilliant officer, but definitely one with militarist tendencies.

In the interwar period, the most important guys were Hilary Jones, Bill Pratt, and Mark Bristol, all of them exceptional, and even visionary in the case of Pratt. I am revisionist on the score of Jones, who many historians see as a fossil. I found him a model for the naval diplomat/strategist and just the guy the Board needed during the lean years of the 1920s, a lot more progressive than folks think. Noted naval historian William Braisted, by the way, agrees with this position.

Finally, in the years after World War II John Towers

Admiral John Towers/Courtesy of NHHC from the Towers Papers Collection

almost singlehandedly saved the General Board, bringing it back to very much the size and composition it had, with the Marines as members, similar to Henry Taylor’s original design and then the one in place from 1915 on. However, the NWC president remained off the Board, a key mistake I think. But once Towers left I think the Board’s days were numbered because of unification and the 1947 National Security Act. It is fitting though that the Board began with the most senior Admiral in the Navy and nearly ended with the most senior (by lineal number on active duty). However, the so-called revolt of the admirals seems to have hastened the demise of the Board as all the folks who knew its value departed the scene, especially James Forrestal, CNO Admiral Louis Denfield—fired by Forrestal’s replacement Louis Johnson—and Navy Secretary John Sullivan. They were all supporters of the Board and its value to the Navy.

CN: The General Board took detailed minutes of their meetings. To my knowledge, that’s not something we do today, in the Joint Chiefs’ “Tank” for instance. As a historian how valuable were these minutes? Is it disconcerting that we don’t have these types of records today?

JK: Invaluable, and yes, disconcerting. I was just writing to someone how the General Board seemed to have a sense of its unique historical importance, a sense of itself and the good work it was doing. This spirit came from the historical-mindedness of officers like Taylor, Badger, Dewey, Pratt, Dudley Knox, and Ernest King. See David Kohnen’s book 21st Century Knox for more on this score. The Board kept track of its every meeting in proceedings –written by its most junior member, the secretary of the board (usually a LCDR or CDR)–for its entire organizational life. Some secretaries of the Board include Thomas Kinkaid and Robert Ghormley. Being secretary for the Board was almost a deep select for admiral. Being on the Board as a junior officer or captain was a positive career move in today’s language. These “shore billets” attracted the Navy’s best and brightest.

The Board was also practical in terms of understanding what had happened, and how things happened. Anyone could go back and read the transcripts. As for the transcribed hearings, they came later in 1917. These changes –the complete transcription of the hearings with a stenographer/court recorder–were made as a result of the war in 1917, by Admiral Charles Badger, a guy who gets way too little credit. When the Board was disestablished its last chairman made sure the records were not destroyed and turned over all the files to Dudley Knox’s organizational baby, the Naval Historical Center (now Naval History and Heritage Command, NHHC). Most of them are now part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in downtown DC, but some records are still with the NHHC, for example Arleigh Burke’s General Board “notebook” from his time on the board during the Towers chairmanship.

CN: How were these naval officers able to remain collegial when they sat on the board? Strong personalities and competing visions of what the Navy should build and the adversaries we should prepare to fight are rife through our history.  Many disagreed. How did the board handle this?

JK: It is a fascinating lesson for today. One really must read the hearing transcripts at length to get a feel for how well they got on, even during contentious testimony like that of Billy Mitchell in 1919. That is why I included extensive passages of the banter in Agents, but I did not really have the room to do so in AFGS…a pity. I have thought about possibly publishing some of the more entertaining hearing transcripts in edited commentary format. 

Back to your question—they respected each other and their witnesses, it is that simple. They also knew, with one exception, that what they said would not show up in the newspapers or public debate because the hearings were all classified. Non-attribution if you will. The one exception, of course, was Billy Mitchell, and he was censured by the Secretary of War Newton Baker for doing so! Mitchell lied and told a Congressional Committee that the Board agreed with him that navies were “almost useless” in 1920 during a hearing on aviation. 

CN: Looking through your bibliography, besides the meeting minutes, there are plenty of other resources, like naval memoirs/biographies/autobiographies that you used to tell this story. Are there any autobiographies or biographies of 20th century or even 19th-century naval officers that you found particularly fascinating?

JK: John Towers’ biography was fun, a good read, but I disagree with its take on his time on the General Board. However, it is those guys without biographies that I found most fascinating, especially Mark Bristol, who has been written about much of late for his role in commanding the U.S. Black Sea squadron after WW I and then the Asiatic Fleet during the turbulent years of the China Patrol in 1920s warlord China. Taylor, of course, was fascinating and deserves a biography, too. I hope Al Nofi is reading this, he and I agree that many of these guys need a decent biographer. Gerald Wheeler’s biography of Bill Pratt is a gem, USNI should reprint it, and Fiske’s memoir is great, funny even, but one must be careful because sometimes his agenda displaces the actual facts. As for the 19th century, God and Seapower on a new spiritual biography of Mahan by Suzanne Geissler is essential, but for the real flavor readers are directed to the older issues of the Naval Institute Proceedings, now digitized from the 1870s on. It is there they will find the writings of these guys like Luce, Taylor, Chadwick French, etc., in articles and comments.

CN: What was the beginning of the end of the General Board?

JK: The General Board died a slow death. The decline, in retrospect, began with the departure of the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and President of the Naval War College as ex officio members in 1932. But the decline did not become pronounced until World War II, when the General Board found itself eclipsed by OpNav and the JCS strategic organizations under General Marshall. World War II was a key event that changed the culture and organizational focus and norms of the Navy, it midwifed the Navy we have today—forward deployed, primarily used for power projection, with an always high optempo. The Navy the General Board served for most of its life was not the kind of navy the U.S. had after 1941. The revolt of the admirals, creation of DOD, and ascendancy of what I call “OpNav Culture” were the final forcing functions that saw the Board die its quiet death in 1950, its passing overshadowed by the Korean and Cold Wars.

Its staying power in the face of all that is remarkable. Admiral King is the key, he could have easily have gotten Frank Knox or James Forrestal to abolish the Board but did not. I sometimes wonder if King considered perhaps retiring and then assuming presidency of the Board himself instead of Towers, that way he could continue to wield some of the enormous power he had held after stepping down as CNO and COMINCH. Perhaps though, that role did not have power enough for a man like King!

CN: Professor, this has been great.  Thank you.

JK: It has been my pleasure and thank you for allowing me to discuss my scholarship.

Commander (retired) John T. Kuehn is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. A former naval aviator, he is the author of Agents of Innovation (Naval Institute Press, 2008) and the coauthor, with D. M. Giangreco, of Eyewitness Pacific Theater (Sterling, 2008). He has published numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. He has also published A Military History of Japan (Praeger 2014) and Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (Praeger 2015). His next published work will be a chapter in an anthology on service cultures. Dr. Kuehn’s chapter is on the U.S. Navy cultural transformations between 1941 and the present.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is currently stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters.  The views here are his own.

Featured Image: Meeting at the Navy Department, Washington, D.C., 1932. Those seated are (left to right): Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol; Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay, Jr.; Captain John W. Greenslade; Commander Theodore S. Wilkinson (Secretary); Rear Admiral Jehu V. Chase; and Captain Cyrus W. Cole. Standing are (left to right): Lieutenant Colonel Lewis C. Lucas, USMC(Retired); and Commander Edgar M. Williams. Number over the door in left center is “2748”, indicating that this office was located on the second deck of the “Main Navy” Building. Note portrait of Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, first President of the General Board, on the wall to the left. (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)

Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

CIMSEC is committed to keeping our content FREE FOREVER. Please consider donating to our annual campaign now so we can continue to provide free content.

By Matthew Merighi

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Bill Harlow, an author and former intelligence community spokesman, about his work in strategic communications in the armed forces. He talks about the public affairs career track in the military, his experience at all levels of government, and how that experience informs the civilian work he does today. 

Download Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

A transcript of the interview between Bill Harlow (BH) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Associate Producer Cris Lee for producing this episode and writing the transcription.

MM: Now, as is Sea Control tradition, please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your professional background, what you’re up to now, and how you got from where you started in your career to where you are at the moment.

BH: Well, I like to think of myself as a communications professional. I started out in the Navy, got a commission through ROTC from Villanova. And spent 25 fascinating years in the Navy, most of that as a public affairs professional. I had a number of very interesting tours while on active duty, including four years at the White House Press Office, and duty at the Pentagon many times in various spokesman positions. This included Chief Spokesman for the secretary of the Navy and retired as a Navy Captain in 1997, and went to work as chief spokesman for a secret organization. Sounds like it should be a pretty easy job.

Then I was the spokesman for the CIA for 7 years, from 1997 to 2004. I left that job and did a couple things, one was writing and helping various people, mostly former CIA officials, write their memoirs or books. I do that under my Bill Harlow communications hat. Then I also started a company called 15 Seconds, 15-seconds.com, with Fred Francis, a former NBC news correspondent. We do crisis communications and media training, and tell clients how to approach dealing with the media from the dual perspective of Fred who spent 40 years in network news and my perspective of spending almost that much time as a government spokesman, so it provides a unique perspective to people about how to deal with the media in the current environment.

MM: Well, that’s a very broad and diverse set of career experiences so what we’ll do is start from the beginning. As you can imagine, as our listeners already know, most of the people we have come through military backgrounds on Sea Control end up talking about more kinetic topics and have line officer backgrounds but you ended up in public affairs. What made you want to go down the public affairs route and how did you end up getting involved in that world?

BH: Well, I always had an interest in communications and media relations and those kind of things, but I owed the Navy four years of service for my ROTC scholarship and fortunately after a couple quicks and takes I ended up aboard USS Midway as the collateral duty public affairs officer. I got on board in Alameda and about three days later the ship got underway for Japan for a cruise that lasted a couple generations, but I was fortunate enough to be on board when the Midway went to Yokosuka for the first time. And while on board I was able to run the ship’s newspaper, the closed-circuit radio TV. It also involved dealing with crises that we had on board, things like that, while also standing bridge watches from time to time.

And although I eventually qualified as an Officer of the Deck underway on the Midway, I was having more fun doing the communicating part of it than driving the ship. So, at the end of my tour there I applied for conversion to the public affairs designator within the Navy. It’s a very small community within the Navy, Public Affairs specialists who do that solely for the rest of their careers, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. When I went ashore from the Midway, I was able to build on what I learned in the fleet to help the story of the Navy for the next twenty-plus years.

MM: I want to ask a more general question in terms of what then is the traditional glide path and the traditional trajectory for a person that is doing public affairs in either the Navy or the military services? What kind of assignments do you normally end up getting, what are the standard kind of cycles that you go through to get into those positions, and how exactly does a public affairs career end up unfolding?

BH: It varies widely and it certainly varies more widely when you talk about the different services. The Navy I think has the best track record of training and deploying their spokespeople. They give them a lot of responsibility early on, which is typical of the Navy in general as you know. And they tend to put their spokespeople in areas of fleet concentration, whether its Norfolk or San Diego or whatever. Or places where there’s lots of communications opportunities like the Pentagon and again there’s only a small number of people. When I was in less than two hundred, total. The seniormost person was usually a one star, and then on down to the junior-most person, they might be a JG or a LT. And so they’re spread pretty thinly but you get an opportunity to deal with both media relations and with the press, along with internal relations communicating within the Navy whether it’s through closed-circuit TV or through other broadcasts or internet platforms now. It also includes community relations and dealing with the public, trying to get the public to understand what the Navy does and why it does it and try to build support that can be anything from working with the bands or with the Blue Angels, to all manner of things. So those are the kind of jobs that you end up getting within the public affairs community.

MM: You had some pretty high profile and high visibility positions. So, let’s talk a little bit about your time at the White House. I’m looking at your bio and seeing the years. You were there right during the transition between President Reagan and President Herbert Walker Bush, which was obviously an interesting time for national politics and international affairs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the new world order, complete redefinition of the world as we knew it. Which means that as things are changing quickly, I’m sure it was very, to put it mildly, interesting to say nothing of difficult to keep abreast of those changes and communicate what the White House was doing and what the world was becoming. So, tell us a little bit about what your time was like in the White House, particularly the transitions between the two presidencies and the transition in world order.

BH: Yeah, it was a fascinating time to be there. I guess it’s probably any time that the White House is fascinating, but it certainly seemed to be that I was fortunate at that particular time and it wasn’t meant to be as long as it turned out to be. At the end of the Reagan administration there was a vacancy at the White House press office in the part that handled national security. They reorganized several times back and forth, but that particular spot would be assigned to the National Security Council staff, but at the time we were considered White House staff. And there was a vacancy at the end of the Reagan administration and there weren’t any civilians beating down the door to take the job because there were only a few months left in the administration. So people didn’t want to leave a paying job to go there. So, people at the White House thought well maybe we can get a military guy to fill in for the final nine months of the Reagan administration. And they called over to the senior spokesman for the Pentagon and they asked if he knew anybody that would fit the bill, and at the time I was the senior military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and he asked me for a recommendation and I said, “How about me?” And he kindly said, “Sure go over and interview,” and I went over and interviewed. I was fortunate enough to be selected for what I thought was going to be a nine-month job. But then when President George Herbert Walker Bush won election, he asked the Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater under President Reagan to stick around and keep that same job in the new administration and Marlin was kind enough to ask me if I would like to stay for a little bit longer. And I said, “heck yes.” So I took what was a nine-month temporary assignment and milked it for about four years.

It was a remarkable time to be there. President Reagan was a fascinating, wonderful guy to be around. You knew you were in the presence of somebody who was really powerful but also like your favorite uncle. You couldn’t help but like the guy if you were around him a little bit. He was truly a great communicator and he spent a lot of time working on his communications. And so, for a public affairs guy, that was a wonderful thing to observe and to play a small part in. I was there. And toward the end of his administration when he went to Moscow, for the summit meeting and things like that, I traveled with the president a little bit. It just was was a fascinating time.

Then the Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush becomes president, and it was a remarkable period in history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, the Soviet Union coming apart. And again, I was privileged to have been able to travel with him around the world, to a number of events and to be there taking part in figuring out how do we deal with these crises and how do you respond to a situation like the Berlin Wall coming down.

I think President Bush doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he handled all those things masterfully. He could’ve said or done things that would’ve triggered a negative response from the Soviet Union, but he handled it just perfectly and in a way which allowed the Soviet Union to take itself apart without taking down large portions of the West with them. So, it was a wonderful opportunity, working at the White House is of course a privilege.

One thing I would say is different about working in the White House and working in the military is that almost everyone at the White House understood the importance of communications. And so, you never had a problem getting the attention of some senior official to get them to give you information that you could use to respond to the media, to talk to them and think through the implications of how the reactions would play out in the media. Sometimes in the military, you run into senior officials who think “my job is to be a warfighter and that’s all I care about,” and that “The public doesn’t have to know anything about what we’re doing and therefore you press guys stay out of the way.” That was not the situation in the White House for they understood by the very nature of their jobs that they had to communicate effectively in order to do a good job for the administration and for the country.

MM: And so… when you’re within the White House versus in the military there’s a difference between how the senior leaders view the need for communications. What about the battle rhythm, sort of the day-to-day work. Was it fundamentally the same between those two organizations even though the leadership put a different emphasis on strategic communications, or is the nature of doing public affairs the same regardless of whether you’re on the civilian White House side or the more military DoD side?

BH: I think it’s close to the same, I brought with me sort of a military ethic when I got to the White House. I made a point of getting in an hour ahead of my boss, which is a typical military thing when you’re an aide or a military assistant or something like that. And  just immersing myself with the information to try to stay ahead of the game because there was so much information coming in since there are so many things you need to anticipate and deal with. And like in any organization, you just never know what’s going to come at you, there’s so many possibilities that you need to stay on top of things. The last thing you want at the White House or at any senior military command is to be surprised by actions that there’s any way to know of. You want to stay ahead of the curve but it was challenging, and it’s even more so today given the plethora of media outlets that are there to deal with so it must be even harder to stay ahead of the game.

MM: So that what it’s like on the civilian or the government civilian side and on the military side. So let’s talk about the third leg of that stool which is secret organizations. So, you went to work for the CIA in 1997?

BH: That’s correct, yes.

MM: So, in 1997, you joined the CIA as a communications person, as chief spokesman. You held that position for a number of years. So, tell us then what was the difference working on the intelligence side, as you mentioned what is it like to be in charge of the responsible for the communications or the organization whose primary cultural aspect is to try to give away as little as information as possible

BH: Yeah, it was certainly challenging. And I thought going into it I would have a little bit of a leg up on it because I had worked with the military and from time to time worked with the Navy submarine community, for example, which is notably tight-lipped and with the special warfare communities and things like that. CIA takes it obviously to a completely different level. And there are a large number of people within the organization who will forever think that the only response to any question should be “no comment.” And then they would be just as happy if the press job didn’t exist. But my argument and the argument which my boss Director George Tenet fully endorsed was that the agency has a responsibility to talk about what it can so that in those occasions when it must be secret, it has some credibility. When you say everything in the world is classified, everything is to be responded with “no comment,” but then you have no standing if the media come to you and they haven’t learned something secretive and you ask them “please don’t report that” because it would do damage to national security. You have no standing if you have been telling the same thing all along for every simple question that they might ask.

It’s also an opportunity, because of the nature of the organization, there are things that the intelligence community does that can be talked about. There’s analysis they do that is quite valuable to the public and the private sector, there are actions taken that can be spoken about and if you put some deposits in the credibility bag, they will be able to describe a few of the success against the inevitable stories that get out there about the failures the intelligence community or about the other difficult enemies you run into. You’ve got more ability to offset that if you play the game. If you totally stiff the media, totally refuse to respond to any question, when stuff goes badly, and it will, inevitably you’ve got little leg to stand on when they try to put it in perspective.

MM: So, let’s talk then about some of the specific events that happened while you were at the CIA because you were there for a number of years and I’d say the two that sort of pop up are 9/11 and the prosecution of the Iraq War. So, I was wondering if you could walk through then some of the specifics that you actually can talk about in your role. What it was like to be there during that tumultuous time and that very difficult time for our country?

BH: Yeah, again it was a fascinating time to be where I happened to be. The CIA was the one part of the government that was most alarmed about the potential threat from al-Qaida for a number of years. When I first got there in 1997, it was very worried about it, working aggressively against that target, but it was a very difficult one to get attention to. If you go back and look at the public testimony that the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet made in 1998-99-2000 even early 2001, he was saying things along the lines of, “al-Qaida could attack any moment without further notice.” So, we were trying to get the word out that this was a serious situation of extraordinary concern to the agency and to the nation, but again you run into the difficulties of not being able to talk about many of the things you are doing, and also there’s so much that’s unknown about it. But we were definitely feeling the potential pressure of that situation as the 9/11 commission quotes that Director Tenet was saying that at the time the system was blinking red and we knew that something big was coming. We didn’t know precisely where, we didn’t know precisely when, we didn’t know how it would happen. We were trying to raise the alarm within government but there’s always only so much you can do there, because if you can’t tell them precisely what’s going to happen or where, they say to you, “aren’t you guys just crying wolf again?”

So, there was a tremendous feeling of pressure at the time and then when 9/11 happened. I was at the CIA headquarters that morning and we were in a senior staff meeting and one of the watch officers came in to the director’s conference room and said a plane has just hit the World Trade Center. And while many people will say their initial reaction was “it’s probably a small plane that got lost or something,” I think our reaction was generally was it could well be al-Qaida and I went back to my office and saw the second plane and then certainly knew instantly that it was. Then there was the tremendous outpouring and support where the entire country came together to try to band together against this fight. And the wonderful work that was done by the agency and special warfare community in going into Afghanistan after a couple weeks of 9/11 and essentially routing the Taliban and putting al-Qaida on the run was a very dramatic period in the country’s history.

And then what inevitably happens after a crisis like that, the first reaction is that people pull together and work together and the second reaction is that people start pointing fingers. “Why didn’t somebody tell us? Why didn’t you stop this? Why didn’t you do whatever it is in retrospect what should’ve been done?” And after the crisis whether it’s that one or whether its any other one you could name, it’s very easy to go back and look at things that might have been done, should have been done. You now have the complete picture and you go back and find the pieces of the puzzles that were missing. At the time when you’re in the run-up to a crisis, the cliché is that it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle without the box top, or worse than that is a jigsaw puzzle without the box top and thousands of pieces of other jigsaw puzzles mixed in among them that look like they would it but really don’t fit. So, after the fact, you know precisely what to look for and you can find a dozen pieces you can put them together and understand what may have happened and what might have been missed. In the lead up, it’s a different picture. So that was 9/11 and the aftermath to it involved a tremendous work of effort and focus at the agency. And I was privileged to be in there and help tell as much of that story as we could at the time and help try to explain the things that we couldn’t answer, and trying to explain why we couldn’t answer the question. 

That whole atmosphere played into the next one that you mentioned, the run up to the Iraq War. You can’t overstate how much impact of 9/11 had on the thinking within the administration about dealing with the potential threat of Iraq. And there were a couple mainstream ideas that touched on things that I was able to deal with at the time, one was the terrorism threat and there were a lot people who were connecting Iraq to al-Qaida, inappropriately we thought. They were over-stressing, this is outside the intelligence community, over-stressing the potential connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And I spent a lot of my time, to the extent that I could, factually dealing with that, trying to knock down the notion that there was some direct link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. Things like that. And then there was the WMD portion and as Paul Wolfowitz famously said at one point, “That was the one thing that everyone could agree on.” This includes every intelligence service around the country, even Saddam’s, I would bet you. Every pundit for the most part was pretty well convinced that Saddam had some fashion of weapons of mass destruction. Turned out that it was nowhere near as far along as feared. And you can write books, and I’ve help write a couple, thinking in to a great detail about how did it happen, how it could’ve happened. But it was a tremendously complex period in the country’s life. And there was a feeling of “we don’t want to get this one wrong. If we get this one wrong and we underestimated it, the results could be catastrophic.” You could argue though we got it wrong in the other direction, and we certainly did, but it was a difficult period and the life of the intelligence community in the country’s history.

MM: And then not too long after that, you ended up retiring from your role and then taking that experience to the ventures that you are working on now. So, the PR firm, Bill Harlow Communications, and also 15 Seconds that you mentioned earlier that you co-founded with Fred Francis from NBC. So, what was that transition like, to go from what must have been the most difficult part of your career dealing with 9/11 and the lead up to the Iraq War and the immediate aftermath, into the private sector just all of a sudden. Was it a difficult transition, was it hard to learn the new tricks and tips and things that you have to figure out? Or was the transition relatively smooth? What kind of things did you learn what things in your previous career helped you find a new one?

BH: Yeah, well backing up a little bit, I had actually retired from the Navy before I took the job at the CIA. So, I had been out of the Navy for a while, and although I left the Navy on a Friday and started on Monday at the CIA, the only difference was showing up in civilian clothes. But there wasn’t much difference between those 25 years in the Navy and seven years at the CIA. Then all of a sudden, I left the CIA. Frankly after 33 years of fairly intense service, I was kind of exhausted, so I welcomed the opportunity to not show up at work at 5:30 or 6 in the morning every day, and stay until 7 or 8 at night.

Initially, one of the things I was able to pursue shorty after leaving the agency was to help George Tenet with his memoirs, which were published in 2007, in a book called At the Center of the Storm. And that too was a fairly intense process, a very difficult one to figure out what could be said, help him get it written and get it through the CIA clearance process which is challenging. So that kept me busy, and at the same time, I was setting up this other company 15 Seconds with Fred Francis where we were trying to pitch ourselves to both the private sector and we had a few governmental clients as well where we helped train people to deal with the media. So, all that kept me busy and it was an interesting change of pace. So, it wasn’t as difficult a transition as I might have feared

MM: And so with all of those things that ended up happening to you, how much of that did you say did you build intentionally? How much happened by luck?

BH: I think about 90 percent of life is luck. You just keep showing up to the work and doing the best you can and networking at the extent that you can. I never planned to spokesman for the CIA. In fact, when I retired from the Navy, the one thing I didn’t want to do was go back to work for the government. At the time you had to give up most of your retired pay if you went back to work as a civil servant and that made no sense for me to do that at all so when the guy who was spokesman for CIA was leaving at the time I was shopping around for a job, and I knew him from the Pentagon in the past, he asked me if I wanted to go over for an interview for his job. And I had no intention of getting that job, I thought it might be good practice to interview over there and then when I went out to the private sector I’d have more practice with job interviews.

Because usually in the military you don’t do job interviews, that’s not really the way you get assignments. So, I went over there thinking I would work my way up the bureaucracy with people and I’d practice my interview skills. Well, the first guy in the interview was George Tenet. And I just hit it off with the guy, just was totally impressed with him, and I thought, “you know it might be fun to work with him for a year or two and then go off and into the private sector.” Well, a year or two turned into seven years and I never planned it that way, but it turned out to be a wonderful thing. I didn’t anticipate that so many historic things would happen when they did and I helped convince him that he ought to tell his story, and then he asked me to help me do it and then one thing led to another. I think that if he tried to plan it then that never would have happened. When I went to the White House and I was only going there for nine months, it was a temporary job and I had no way of knowing that President Bush would be elected or that he would ask Marlin Fitzwater to stick around or that Marlin would ask me to stick around. So, it was just the luck of the draw and I’ve been very lucky.

MM: So then let’s talk a little bit more about the crisis communication aspect, since you’ve lived through crises. I imagine your firm 15 Seconds has something to do with crisis communications so if you could walk us through why did you founded that particular organization company and what is it like to handle crisis communications, how do you do it, and how is it different from non-crisis public relations.

BH: We call the company 15 Seconds, it’s sort of a play on Andy Warhol’s in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. He said that 40 years ago and things have sped up so much that you only get 15 seconds. And our theory is that in a crisis situation you’ve got to respond enormously fast in order to get ahead of the curve and in order to establish what you’ll want to say because everybody else is going to be out there: all your competitors, all of the people who are your opponents, all your pundits, all the people who are just looking to get some notoriety will be out there talking about your issue whether you want to be or not. So, the difference between crisis communications and normal public relations, is that you don’t really get a vote on whether you play or not. If you’re at Equifax and you’ve just been hacked and lost the details of 143 million people, you got to get out there and talk about it whether you like it or not because otherwise your company’s going to be decimated. In normal situations, people in organizations can pick and choose, “Do I want to engage, do I not want to engage, do I want to put out a spokesman, do I want to just respond in a written response, can I just let this go and keep your head down and maybe we’ll do fine?” But in a crisis situation, you’ve got to play, because otherwise you’re just going to get your head handed to you because everybody else is going to be damning you, putting out information which may or may not be true, and redefining your organization. So, it’s a challenge and we think that organizations who only think about crisis communications after the crisis hits have put themselves in a very difficult position. Because if they haven’t thought through how you would respond to a crisis, if you haven’t thought through who would be your spokesman on it, if you haven’t thought through mechanisms on how we get information out, “do I put out a press release, do I put out a press conference, do I know how to hold a press conference, do I know where to hold it?” If you haven’t thought through it in advance, the chances of it coming out perfectly well aren’t so good.

MM: Let’s talk also then about the part of your career that you alluded to when you were talking about helping write At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet, his memoirs. You’ve written a number of other books too, one with Michael Morell and a number of others, primarily about al-Qaida and the war on terrorism. How did you end up deciding to pursue that business model of helping others write their stories and how is that different from other kinds of writing that you have to do either in your private sector or in your public-sector PR roles?

BH: Well, the first book I wrote was actually a novel that I wrote towards the end of my time in the navy, called Circle William. And it was about two brothers, one who was a White House press secretary, obviously based on my experience, and the other was a captain of an Arleigh Burke destroyer, and that was actually based on a friend of mine and yours, Jim Stavridis. I had worked with him within the secretary of the navy staff, and when he was a young commander. So using those two worlds of the Navy and the White House press operation, I worked on this novel which was well-received. I wasn’t able to promote it that much because by the time it came out I was at the CIA and I had a full-time job but it was an interesting experience as simply getting published is both rewarding and challenging. So, I had been through the process.

Then at the end of my time at sea, I had been published once at least and I knew the mechanics of doing it. I had this belief that George Tenet had a terrific story to tell and I wanted to help him tell it and it came out very well. His book opened number one in the New York best seller list, you can’t complain about that. But I didn’t intend to get into that line of work, but having done that successfully with Tenet, other book opportunities presented themselves to me. Fortunately for every book that I have coauthored, the people I worked with were first friends before coauthors, so Michael Morell and then Jose Rodriguez, and Jim Mitchell is the most recent one.

So, these are people I certainly knew of and in most cases, knew well and were friendly with. And that made the process a lot easier to help them tell their stories. Of course, this is their story, it’s not my story, but they’re also all very busy people and the extent that I could help them convey what they want to convey, about their lessons learned from their time and any government, it’s been a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

MM: Since you’ve done this a number of times already, do you have any writing advice for our people out in our audience, who I imagine most are more used to say, writing articles for CIMSEC or doing background papers in their government jobs? Any writing advice that you gleaned from both your time in uniform, and as a government civilian, and as a writer?

BH: One bit of advice would be to keep writing, it’s something that gets better, and it gets easier the more you do it. And to the extent that if you let that skill atrophy, it takes a while to get back in the saddle. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just keep writing and writing. The other bit of advice is, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, when you’re writing, leave out the parts that people are going to skip anyway. I see a lot of people writing things and it is way too long. I get a lot of former CIA and military people who want to write novels or non-fiction books who come to me and ask for some advice, and what I tend to see is that they write too much. People who write books which if they ever got published would kill thousands of trees. It’s much better to leave people wanting more than to have them wanting less. So, to the extent that you write stuff, if you could keep it punchy, memorable, short, it’s to your advantage. Other times, where you need to write long, the Tenet book, At the Center of the Storm, was a pretty hefty sized book, but he had so much material to cover and so many historical things that justified it. But for most of us, writing material to keep it punchy and short is much better. 

MM: Excellent. Now since we’ve reached the end of our episode, let’s conclude the same way we conclude every episode. Especially since you’ve worked in communications, you likely know this question well, what kind of things are you reading nowadays, and for the people out in the audience who are either interested more in the public relations and public affairs world or just interested in what’s on your mind, what things would you recommend that they pick up?

BH: I don’t read a whole lot about the public affairs world, so I may let down your readers on that regard. I tend to find myself reading more nonfiction historical stuff, that’s what interests me and that, when I break away from my daily routine, is what I tend to focus on. One book I’m reading right now is Churchill and Orwell, by Tom Ricks, terrific book, I’m only about halfway through it but I would never have thought to have combine those two people in a single book, but Tom is doing a great job, has done a great job telling two stories of two quite remarkable men during a critical period in the world’s history. Tom is somebody I knew, he was a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal and he’s someone who has given me writing advice early on, so I certainly respect everything that he does. I also read stuff that is sort of on the periphery of things that I have done or there’s a number of books by former CIA officials or people who are interested in CIA things. There’s one coming out from the Naval Institute Press called Operation Blackmail about Betty Macintosh, who was a woman in the OSS in World War II in the Pacific, who led a remarkable career. And that’s a book I read in galley form. It’s well worth a read by people who read your blog and who are interested in World War II history and espionage. It’s quite a remarkable book.

MM: I’ll definitely have to pick it up I’m sure. Thank you again Bill for taking the time today. Really appreciate you appearing on Sea Control and best of luck in all of your ventures, writing, and communications and otherwise.

BH: Thank you very much, it’s been my pleasure.

Bill Harlow is the President of Bill Harlow Communications and Co-Founder of 15-Seconds.com. He is the author of Circle William and has co-authored a number of books, including At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet and The Great War of Our Time with Michael Morell. 

Matthew Merighi is Senior Producer for Sea Control, CEO of Blue Water Metrics, and Assistant Director for Maritime Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

Admiral Scott Swift on Leadership, Risk, and a Life in the U.S. Navy

By Christopher Nelson

I recently had the chance to sit down and chat with Admiral Scott Swift, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  In forty-five minutes we covered a range of topics, from leadership styles to discussions on risk, naval culture, and why he joined the U.S. Navy.

Sir, I’d like to start with a question about leadership. How would you describe your leadership style?

It’s an interesting question. I think if you want to understand my leadership style you have to ask a lot of other people. My experience is that when leaders are asked that question, they describe what they desire their leadership style to be as opposed to what it actually may be. But in a word, I would say the leadership style I try to emulate is to be inclusive. Leaders that I admire most are those leaders that have pursued an inclusive leadership style. As opposed to the opposite  an exclusive leadership style one that excludes other opinions, one that excludes ideas that don’t match with their view of the world. Part of that inclusive leadership is uncertainty, it’s an important element. And it’s not something that is to be diminished but recognized and accounted for.  

Anytime you are a leader in the military  or leader of any organization there is more uncertainty than certainty in the decisions you face. And yet I struggled for a long time looking for words to describe that uncertainty in a broader context. Someone mentioned to me, actually they walked up to me and gave me a little piece of paper with a word written on it, and the word was “vulnerability.” I think as a leader it is important to be vulnerable. I don’t hear anyone saying that. Rather, I hear people saying to be a good leader it is about toughness, it’s about courage; it’s about being demonstrative and committed. I don’t see people saying it is really important as a leader to be vulnerable. Now, I don’t recommend that approach either, but in a discussion about leadership, I think it is important to tie that vulnerability into an element of inclusive leadership.

For example, I don’t like sitting at the head of the table. I sit here, on the side of the table during meetings. I do it on purpose because it makes the circle bigger. More people can talk when you are sitting in this chair directly across from you rather than sitting at the head of the table. This is especially true for the people envisioned as having the most power and that are most relevant are those that sit closest to the head of the table, as opposed to the tail of the table. So being inclusive, I think, is important. I’d like to think if you talked to 100 different people that know me, the majority would agree that my style is inclusive.

Are there are any people from your career or from history that you emulate, or that you think are great at inclusive leadership?

I think we are shaped by the time we are 16 years old. And I think the largest shaping element is our parents in those 16 years. I say 16 because by that time you start to think you are out from under that umbrella our parents provide. Then at about 18, you are really start transitioning out. So the transition occurs between 16 and 18. And of course, it could be grandparents or another individual that you may be drawn to that provides that guidance.

My experience, mainly from a discipline perspective, is when I get most insights into a Sailor’s background. I’ve seen wonderful Sailors come from wonderful parents; I’ve seen wonderful Sailors come from terrible parents, terrible Sailors from terrible parents, and terrible Sailors from wonderful parents. I think it is troublesome to try and correlate what happens in those 16 years.

The examples of leadership that are most compelling, those clearest to me, are examples of bad leadership. I had a tyrannical commander during one of my first tours. The squadron that I went to was the worst squadron on the base everyone knew it and no one wanted to go there. But that’s where I ended up. I knew right away that I did not want to be a leader like that commanding officer. We thought the executive officer was exactly the same as the commanding officer because he was very loyal. He would say things like, “We need to support the CO.” But after the change of command, we realized he was a completely different leader. Two weeks later he was killed in an aircraft mishap. There was a direct input commanding officer that was put in that was just phenomenal, one of the best leaders I have ever worked with. But the leadership lessons that I got from him I never understood until, three, four, five years later. So the negative lessons are very clear in my mind.

The positive lessons are much more subtle. It goes back to what I learned from my parents, who had the largest influence on me. They were inclusive. And then I’ve had examples that have reinforced those experiences throughout my career.

Do you have any advice you would give to your younger self in the Navy? Any regrets?

I tell the same story all the time. I joined the Navy to get out of the Navy. I wanted to be an airline pilot. I couldn’t afford the certifications and the flight times that the airlines required. I joined the Navy because I wanted to fly, to get experience. At that time it was only a four-and-a-half year commitment from the time that you got your wings. And when my commitment was up, I was a week from leaving the Navy, I had all my paperwork, then I decided to pull my papers because I was afraid I couldn’t engender the same relationships outside the Navy as inside the Navy.  

In fact, it’s funny, I know you’re familiar with Admiral Stavridis’ book The Accidental Admiral. I wanted to sue him for copyright infringement because I have been referring to myself as the accidental admiral for some time [laughter]. I made some comment to a group of people back when I was a one-star, and I would refer to myself as the accidental admiral, and I’d tell people that no one was more surprised than I was when I made admiral. And then afterward there would be a big line of people lined up, I assumed ready to congratulate me on these incredible statements I made. But no, they were there to tell me that they were more surprised than I was when I made admiral. My ego couldn’t take it anymore [laughter].

I think along with leadership there needs to be a true sense of humility. You shouldn’t feel worthy of the job. You should be made to feel unworthy because of the quality and commitment of the people around you. I was just up in the N37, the operations directorate. It is a small group of individuals, and it’s just incredible what they do. I don’t think they totally appreciate what they do and the impact of what their day-to-day actions are having on the Fleet.

It leads me to the direct answer to your question: I tell people that I owe the Navy everything and I owe the Navy nothing. I got in the Navy to get out, and here I am a four-star. I used to ask myself, “How in the heck did this happen?” Everybody else would say, “Yeah, I know, we are trying to figure out the same thing, so quit asking that question as well.” But at the same time, when I say I don’t owe the Navy anything, I’ve never done anything just to get a job. So my advice to people is, for example, if you really don’t want to go to Washington D.C. for a job, but you know it’s the best thing for your career, well, then don’t go. I’ve had three tours in Washington. D.C.  I went back as the director of the Navy staff because the CNO said you have to come back to be the director because you don’t have a clue how the building works. I said, “Yeah, I don’t want to know how the building works” [laughter].

When I was a one-star I had a two-star come into my office. He was obviously down and wasn’t in that great of a mood. I said, “Hey, what’s up?” He said, “I just found out I’m going to this job.” I said, “I would love to go to that job. So where’s the bad news in this?” His comment was that no one that went to that job was promoted to a three-star. So, here I am a one-star, and this guy’s a two-star, and he’s worried about making his third star? He was worried about all the wrong things. The job he was offered was a great job that would have opened all types of doors inside and outside the military.

I have no regrets.  I always viewed every set of orders that I got as an opportunity.

A friend of mine once told me that he tries to balance work, family, and faith. I’ve seen your schedule, you are incredibly busy. How do you balance your work and family life?

When I was an O5, I was spending way too much time with work and not enough time with family. So we took a day out of the weekend and said this day is for us. We weren’t going to do anything that I didn’t want to do, and we weren’t going to do anything my wife didn’t want to do. We’d pick a day, a Saturday or a Sunday. The first day I grabbed a bucket sitting out in the garage, and she asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, this is our day together.”  “I know,” she said, but “what are you doing?”  I said, “I’m going to wash your car.”  She then said, “That’s what you want to do, I don’t care what my car looks like.” Even then I was still too focused on the stuff that needed to get done. I have a hard time relaxing. That lasted for that tour and it lasted through my major command tour. Once I made flag officer it went out the window.  

So what we do now is on Saturday and Sunday morning we don’t set the alarm; we wake up when we wake up. We go downstairs and have a cup of coffee and sit in the living room and just talk about whatever is on our minds. It might be ten minutes or it might be two hours. Whenever work intrudes I have to go off and do the work thing. We go out on Saturday to either lunch or dinner. And then on Sunday, we’ll go out to lunch. My Sunday afternoon is committed to getting ramped back up for the week. Then one week out of the quarter I take leave. My wife said we can’t spend our leave on Oahu, we have to get off the island because work is always there. So I said, “How about the big island, you know, for distance?” She said, “Yeah, that would work.” I thought: that was too easy.  So we started planning our first trip. I said to her, “You said the big island was OK, so are you thinking about Kona?”  She then said, “No, no, I meant the big island  California or east.” That was a wakeup call [laughter]. But you have to find that time for yourself. It’s a sacrifice. You have to have the humility to ask yourself what are the things we need to do together.

There’s a saying that a chaplain whispered in my ear as a reminder when I was talking to the Sailors at the Fitzgerald memorial, and I think it is originally a Morale, Welfare, Recreation (MWR) saying, but it’s “Mission First, Sailors Always.” I always thought that was backward. I changed it when I was a strike group commander. What I said was “Sailors First, Mission Always.” And then I changed it from “sailors” to “people.” So now what I say is “People First, Mission Always.” Because if you put the mission first there is never time for people. The mission will just consume all the energy and all the resources that you have. Show me a mission you can get done without people. If you focus on the people they’re going to get the mission done. People naturally gravitate toward getting the mission done. They don’t gravitate towards spending more time with their family. That’s the message we have to drive through the idea that you have to make time for you and your family.

I thought this was going to be a two-year tour, but when I found out this was going to be a three-year tour, I knew I had to make a change. When the CNO told me it was going to be three years, I sat down with my wife the next morning. I found out on a Friday, and that next morning, that Saturday, it impacted me and my wife the same way. Both of us knew we would have to change our lifestyle. We knew we had to take measured time off; we came to this conclusion independently.  

Sir, I want to shift the conversation to risk. And the anecdote that is often used as a comparison between today’s Navy and the Navy of the early 20th century is Admiral Nimitz grounding his ship, the USS Decatur, when he was an ensign. He turned out OK, even though he was court martialed and received a letter of reprimand. Behind this anecdote is the idea that years ago we would accept more risk and failures were forgiven. But today we simply don’t. Do you agree with that? Are we a risk averse Navy? Do we know how to fail and allow ourselves to learn from those failures?

Yes. I think we are a risk averse Navy and, not only that, a risk averse society. I think it is driven by a few things. 9/11 has something to do with it as does the numerous bombings and terrorist attacks over the years. Parents are nervous about where their kids are, and so on. I used to take off out of the house when I was a five year old. I was well beyond the confines of what my parents thought the neighborhood was. I didn’t give it a second thought; my parents didn’t give it a second thought. And I would be much more concerned about my kids doing that today after reading all these reports in the paper about crimes.  

So I don’t think the risk is any higher today, however, we are more informed as a society today, and because we are more informed we tend to be less tolerant. We are less tolerant of making mistakes. And unfortunately, the by-product of that is we are less tolerant of learning. In my mind we are caught in this loop: we don’t want to learn by making mistakes, so we have more mistakes, more mishaps. We try to manage risk directly as opposed to saying, as an example, letting a young child explore the world and make mistakes, it’s part of life’s learning. I think that’s true in the military. We do need to be more tolerant of risk. There need to be fewer implications with respect to making mistakes. And I mean regimented implications. You need to study each mishap as being unique. And then from what you learn you need to decide what measures need to be taken to prevent it from happening again.

Do you think this discussion about risk will be one of the biggest challenges the Navy will face in the next 5-10 years?

I don’t know if it will be the biggest challenge, but it is a challenge the Navy needs to take on. And its a culture change, so it is going to take a long time.  

The culture we need to change in the Navy is a 20-year culture. People that are going to leave before retirement, those people will be hard to change. The most compelling group to change is the group that is going to stay for 20 years. If you are trying to influence a group that has a 20-year lifespan within the organization, you’ve got to force the change as a commander and hold that change “lever” for 10 years. If you want to move the culture, and you hold that lever over, after 10 years, when you let go of the lever, it’s going to go to the middle. Half the people are used to where you held the new culture at, the other half remember how it was. And that half that remembered what it used to be like…well, they don’t like change, they don’t like uncertainty, they like that stability. They don’t like all of those elements that we characterize as risk.  

Risk aversion is part of our society certainly the world and American society and it’s part of our Navy. I think the experiences of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were incredibly resourced from a financial and manpower perspective, so commanders drove risk to zero. We are not going to have those kinds of resources to face our future threats.

On the staff, we talk about how you like to say a polarizing statement, particularly in a brief or a small group discussion. Is there a reason why you use the polarizing statement?

Time. My most precious personal resource that I have is time. My most important professional resource is people. This is the danger of being inclusive. You can’t just sit around and have the big long conversation. That’s not what being inclusive is about. What’s being inclusive is the diversity of the group as well. You need to have a diverse staff. It’s not gender diversity, it’s not racial diversity, it’s none of those things it’s the diversity of ideas. We get to a diversity of ideas by seeking to include people within our spheres of leadership and organization that have had different life experiences than us. And we have to value them for those experiences, for who they are.

That is why I seek to surround myself with people whose life experiences are different than mine. Who are not white males, from southern California, who went to OCS, and flew jets. Otherwise, we end up as a group-think organization. But if you don’t create an inclusive environment, no one is going to bring those ideas in.  So if you don’t sit here at the table and invite people to put all their ideas on the table and then criticize the ideas without criticizing the individual that’s what’s being inclusive. But that takes time. To optimize the time I want to keep the dialogue going.  

If we start out on the margins of the issue, circling around until we finally get to the core issue, and it takes twenty minutes, we’ve just wasted twenty minutes. So if that is what the discussion should be about, well, put that on the table. This is what the discussion is, and drive the discussion out in an increasing circle from there. This additional discussion can happen after you have that polarizing statement. [FIG 1.]  

FIG 1. Admiral Swift on the Value of the Polarizing Statement

The other reason is, in order to be inclusive, people have to be willing to put their ideas on the table. I need to be willing to my put my ideas on the table and have people critique them, just like anybody else. So, who has the better idea, me or you?

It depends on the topic and the person’s expertise.

Absolutely. But I’ve got this bubble around me. People think that because I have four stars that somehow I am intellectually superior to them. That’s not the case. You’ve got to empower the group. That’s not a common response. That’s the response of someone that has been inculcated in an inclusive learning environment, in an inclusive leadership environment. So let’s have the polarizing statement first so we know what the goal is, and then people can say, “I don’t think that is central to the discussion.” Yes, the issue may be somewhere else. And I reserve the right to change my mind. Here’s what I think today, ten minutes later I might have a different thought. Leading is listening; it’s not transmitting, it’s not one-way communication.  

Sir, to be fair, as a four star when you change your mind, it has reverberations. Do you realize the unintended effects it may have on the staff?  

You have to be careful with what you say. Sometimes I don’t appreciate that enough. The best rank that I ever had was lieutenant. I had more authorities, more insights, and more knowledge about my specific weapon system. And I could get more things done as a lieutenant. But now that I am a four star, yes, I can get specific things done by throwing my weight into it, but I still think of myself as a lieutenant.  

Whenever I say something about work, my wife always says, “Here we go again, the staff is going to jump through hoops, they are going try and deliver on that.” She’s right. It’s just a comment that I make, so it does have an impact. In answer to your question: We should delay decisions until two points. One point is when you determine no more information is going to come into the situation, and then move on.  

If this is when you are aware of the problem, here (A1), and this is when the decision needs to be made (A2). You should not make a decision until this point unless you have sufficient information to make the decision earlier. If you do have that information, well, then make this decision at this point and give all this time back to others to focus on other things, then we are done with problem A. We’ve made a decision here, now let’s move on to the next problem which is problem B.

So now this is problem B solving time. You may get to the point where you don’t have enough information to make the decision, that’s when you go to the commander, and the commander says this is what we are going to do. The first decision point is when you have the knowledge to make an informed decision, the second decision point is when you have to actually make the decision.

FIG2. Admiral Swift on the Science & Art of Decision Making

Commanders lose sight of this because they want all the power that comes with the authority of command, but they don’t want the responsibility. Well, then why did you make that decision? I didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision, so I made an uninformed decision. How many people are willing to say that? That’s what command is. Nimitz made uninformed decisions all the time. The decision Nimitz made for the Coral Sea was absolutely uninformed. It was subjective. So we talk about the science of leadership and we talk about the art of leadership.

All the data and information is science decision space. You get to a point when you are not gathering any more information, and this becomes the art of leadership.

What’s the last good book you read?

It won’t surprise you, you’ve read it, but it’s Jim Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno. There’s a whole raft of reasons why that book is compelling. It’s a book on the science of leadership and the art of leadership. It’s also easy to read. If I can’t figure out where the author is going on a subject within the first thirty pages, then it is difficult for me to continue with a book because rarely do I have the time.  

Neptune’s Inferno, by James Hornfischer (Google Books Images)

It is a compelling book because it gets at a strategic dichotomy between the Marine Corps and the Navy. It’s compelling from a leadership perspective, with Admiral Ghormley being stuck behind his desk and not being able to circulate through the battlefield. And the tyranny of distance the Nimitz picture with the HF radio in the background he’d listen to the communications and through those comms, he would try to patch together what was going on. He knew he had a problem with Ghormley, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. It took him three months to come to the decision that he had to relieve Ghormley to get the campaign moving forward. So he had a decision to make: do I send Halsey or do I send Spruance? I like Spruance because I am a believer in inclusive leadership. (And another great book is The Quiet Warrior, by Buell. I am attracted to Spruance, so that is not an unbiased recommendation. I’ve read it several times.)  

So Nimitz decided to send Halsey down there because he needed someone to kick ass. He didn’t need a lot of theory applied; he needed a bunch of ass kicking, someone to get it done. That to me is compelling from a leadership perspective. That comes out in Neptune’s Inferno.

And then the technical piece is interesting. We had some young lieutenants that were involved in the design process of radars. They were providing advice to the task group commanders on how to use radar. But the task group commanders were putting the radar ships in trail. Information was the key to night fighting. So the radar pickets should have been up forward to give a better sense of what the Japanese were doing.  So we’ve got this technology piece which is a lesson as well. I’m a big believer in the Third Offset strategy, but I’m concerned we are going too far to technology as being the solution. The most critical weapon system that we own in the U.S. military is something that we all carry with us all the time it is right between our ears. That’s what we need to get focused on. That’s why that book resonates with me.

Along these lines, where do you go for your news? How do you consume daily news media?

I asked my PAO if there was a program out there that could sort through news and blogs. And I’ve found a news app, and I do a lot of reading with that application. But you have to be careful with an application like that because you tend to self-select stuff. So if you read stuff that you agree with you are reinforcing your own ideas. So you need diversity. And I don’t have a favorite news channel. I view all channels regardless of my personal view. You have to have alternate views, and you are not going to get them if you go single source. All of my personal reading is actually professionally based.  

Last question, what advice would you give to the next Pacific Fleet Commander?

Having that sense that there are going to be good people there, that they will help you through this process, is the advice that I would give. You need time ahead of the turnover to circulate through the staff to get a sense of what is going on. And you need time after turning over to circulate through the staff. After I took this job, a month was set aside for what I call listening. Another month was set aside for observing, and a third month was set aside for acting. The pass-downs are easier the more senior we get. The pass-down I got when I was the coffee mess officer as an ensign, well, that was a lot of accounting. The pass-down as the security officer as a lieutenant, that was a pain, no one had done an inventory for over two years. I was like “what!” Tracking down all the stuff that had been destroyed or not, that was hard.

This job, you know what the science is, the hard part is understanding what the art is. What are the personalities? Surveys are important here because it will help you understand where we are as a staff. That’s how I determine if we are making a difference. Do people feel empowered? Are they excited about coming to work?

Sir, thank you for the time. I enjoyed it.

Thanks for all you do.

Admiral Scott Swift was promoted to Admiral and assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on May 27, 2015. He is the 35th commander since the Fleet was established in February 1941 with headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Read his entire bio here.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. The comments and questions here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: U.S. Navy Adm. Scott H. Swift delivers remarks as he assumes command of U.S. Pacific Fleet from Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. during the change-of-command ceremonies for U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet in Honolulu May 27, 2015. (U.S. DoD)