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Hagel Warns Against White House 'Micromanaging' Military Leaders

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to sailors aboard the USS America in San Diego, Jan. 14, 2015. Hagel is visiting all service branches to thank them for their service during his last official domestic trip. Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Navy
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to sailors aboard the USS America in San Diego, Jan. 14, 2015. Hagel is visiting all service branches to thank them for their service during his last official domestic trip. Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Navy

In his final address to the troops, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday against "micromanaging" the military in what could be seen as veiled criticism of the White House.

"You cannot micromanage or even attempt to micromanage" the Defense Department, Hagel said in a town hall meeting with senior enlisted soldiers at the Army Sergeants Majors Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.

"If you think you've got the right leaders, then let them do their jobs," said Hagel, who abruptly announced his resignation Nov. 24 after reportedly clashing with an overbearing White House staff on national security issues.

Hagel also appeared to be referring to his differences with the White House in an earlier interview with the San Diego Times Union.

In his meetings with President Obama, Hagel said "he had the opportunity to express what I thought was right and what I thought was wrong, and I did."

Hagel did not respond directly when asked if his advice was heeded: "I feel very good about the fact that I was able to make the kind of recommendations that I did and give the advice I did. That's all I can do."

Hagel's two immediate predecessors, former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, have both written books complaining that President Obama and his national security staff also attempted to "micromanage" them.

Hagel had thus far avoided speculation on whether he was forced out, saying only that he and Obama late last year had reached a "mutual decision" that he should resign.

However, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hagel spoke to him late last year of his frustrations with the White House.

"I know Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration's national security policy and decision-making process," McCain told News Talk 550 radio in Arizona.

"His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micromanagement they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully," McCain said. "Chuck's situation was no different."

Obama has nominated former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to succeed Hagel, and Senate confirmation hearings are expected to begin early next month.

Hagel has said he will stay on until Carter is confirmed, and his tour of military bases this week was billed as a chance for him to say farewell to the troops and their families.

At the end of the tour at Fort Bliss, Hagel said that the biggest challenge for Carter will be resolving the budget uncertainty that has been forced upon the Pentagon by the cost-cutting sequester process.

"I don't see us getting into long land wars" in the coming years, Hagel said, but under sequestration, "we're not going to be able at all to fulfill the defense strategy needs. I think that's the biggest challenge we face. Thirteen years of constant war has broken parts of our force."

Hagel also reflected on his own military experience, noting that Fort Bliss was where he was inducted and went through basic training in 1967. He later served as a sergeant squad leader in Vietnam, where he received two Purple Hearts.

He drew knowing laughter from the audience of senior enlisted as he recalled being greeted by drill sergeants "not by name but by other superlatives. Drill sergeants in 1967 were not as humane as I know all of you are," Hagel said.

Hagel said he was constantly asked "How dumb are you? How could you be so stupid? That's a hard one to answer, actually."

"It probably did as much to shape me and mold me and affect me as any one experience I ever had in my life," Hagel said of his time in the Army. "The Army did very much to define me." In the years since, "I've never been too far from the Army, never been too far from veterans."

In closing, Hagel told the troops "it's been the greatest privilege" of his life to serve them as defense secretary.

Earlier, in remarks Tuesday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, Hagel said he hasn't given thought to what he will do next.

"I've had a very fortunate life," said Hagel, who was also a two-term Republican senator from Nebraska. "I don't know, I haven't thought about it. I've never thought about my next job. I'm just not thinking about it right now."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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