President Barack Obama issued an executive order this week changing the line of succession at the Defense Department, reversing changes made by the Bush administration in 2005.
The deputy secretary of defense remains the immediate successor if the secretary of defense is unable to perform his duties, but the March 1 executive order reinstates the three service secretaries – Army, Navy and Air Force, in that order – as next in line.
The Pentagon did not return Military.com’s calls for comment on the change, but a White House official said the “transition back to the historical order of succession” was recommended by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates following a review.
Now, if Gates and his deputy, William Lynn, were unable to fulfill their duties, Secretary of the Army John McHugh would become acting secretary of defense.
When President George W. Bush issued his order, Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary and the deputy position – his next in line – was vacant. Bush’s order dropped the service secretaries several places down on the list, replacing them, respectively, by the undersecretaries of defense for intelligence, policy and acquisition, according to Executive Order 13394.
The Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence at the time was Stephen Cambone; the undersecretary for policy was Eric Edelman; and the undersecretary for acquisitions was Kenneth Kreig.
According to the December 2005 Associated Press story on the change, the three were all considered Rumsfeld loyalists and all had previously worked for Vice President Dick Cheney when he was defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
Bryan Whitman told The Associated Press in 2005 that the changes were recommended by the Pentagon because the three undersecretaries have “a broad knowledge and perspective of overall [DoD] operations,” while the service leaders have a more narrow focus.
But Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the changes were designed to give the administration greater political control over the DoD while devaluing the services as institutions.
According to a search of the executive orders revoked with each revision, the line was routinely re-established under each president dating back to Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s order, however, referred back to one signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and which also was linked to a secretary named Gates.
On May 18, 1959 Eisenhower issued an order naming Thomas S. Gates – his Navy secretary – to be acting defense secretary. Gates served in the job until the end of Eisenhower’s term in January 1961, according to The American Presidency Project.