A March 2011 fight with Congress over war funding confirmed to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates that his decision to retire three months later was indeed the right one, he said in his new book.
Gates recalled the contentious March 2, 2011, House Appropriations defense subcommittee (HAC-D) hearing in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
At the time, I had just moved to the Pentagon beat after covering the Air Force for the previous five years. It was one of the first hearing I attended in person with Gates testifying.
“I had simply run out of patience and discipline and a willingness to ‘play the game,’ as illustrated by two exchanges during that hearing,” Gates wrote in his book.
The first of those exchanges was when lawmakers questioned why the US would not declare a no-fly zone over Libya. Gates recalls firing back “with uncharacteristic force and a borderline disrespectful tone.”
From the hearing transcript, here’s what Gates said:
There’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options, and let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.
The other exchange was over a $1.2 billion reprogramming transfer that DoD had requested a few weeks earlier “to pay for significant additional [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities requested by [Gen. David] Petraeus for Afghanistan,” Gates wrote.
Then-HAC-D Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla. — who passed away this past October — had blocked the funding transfer since the Pentagon wanted to use money originally aligned to buy Humvees.
“Young had told me the problem would be worked out before the hearing, but it had not been,” Gates wrote . “I couldn’t understand his actions, so I entered the hearing room prepared to do something I had never done: publicly and directly criticize the chairman of one of my most important oversight committees.”
Here’s what Gates said to Young at the end of his opening statement, per the hearing transcript:
Mr. Chairman, our troops need this force protection equipment and they need it now. Every day that goes by is one more day they will do without. Every day that goes by without this equipment, the lives of our troops are at greater risk. I urgently want to get these items under contract so that I can get these important capabilities into Afghanistan in time for operations prior to the fighting season that begins in a matter of weeks.
Gates wrote that he “disliked going after Young like that” and called the late congressman an “old-school gentleman” who “was always gracious toward me and had long been a strong supporter of the military and especially the troops.”
After the hearing, Young told a small group of reporters that the that: “I do not have any parochial interest in the Humvee” and noted the only item on the vehicle made in his congressional district was the release button for the seat belt.
However, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted that Humvee-maker AM General was Young’s third-largest campaign contributor, sending him more than $80,000, a point Gates references in the book.
“I was fed up with the usual forelock-tugging deference to special interests and pet projects among members of Congress, especially when they got in the way of providing urgently needed help to our commanders and troops,” Gates wrote.
Gates and Young talked on the phone a few days later and their staffs worked out a deal. “In the end, $614 million of the $864 million I had requested was transferred from the Humvee program,” Gates wrote.
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