A few words about a few great Pentagon leaders

I was thinking about the Pentagon over the long weekend – appropos, given the Memorial Day celebration. But my thoughts were also sparked by viewing a 9/11 documentary, reviving all the memories of that dark day’s attacks on New York and Washington – which ultimately led to my joining the ranks of defense intelligence for a while.

Even more, on Sunday I was very saddened to read the Washington Post obituary of a great American military leader, retired Lt. Gen. Howard Leaf, USAF.  I’ll just include some highlights from his career as recounted by the Post:

  • A highly decorated combat veteran… He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II [and] was a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
  • His decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal and two awards of the Silver Star, one of which was for leading a raid on an oil refinery in North Vietnam. His other decorations included two awards of the Legion of Merit, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Meritorious Service Medal and 16 awards of the Air Medal. He accumulated 5,600 flying hours during his career.
  • His first assignment at the Pentagon, from 1961 to 1964, was in the Office of Scientific Research for the nuclear detection program.
  • From 1980 until 1983, he was inspector general of the Air Force, responsible for overseeing the group in charge of investigations, anti-terrorism and counterintelligence.
  • Retired as assistant vice chief of staff at the Pentagon in 1984.”

I was saddened because I met Gen. Leaf several times back before his retirement, as one of his daughters was my best friend at the University of Virginia. He was a gruff and funny man, who with his loving wife Madonna raised a house full of patriotic children who went on also to serve their nation. Gen. Leaf always displayed a sense of tolerance towards me and my (likely tiresome) sense of humor – as in the first time I visited the Leaf home, one of the lovely flag-officers’ homes on site at Bolling Air Force Base during his Pentagon service as Vice Chief of Staff.  It was movie night for the family, and at the video store I thought it would be fun to select “Seven Days in May” (about a  fictional military coup plot in the United States). It’s a  great movie, but probably not the best one to choose for viewing in the home of a Pentagon senior leader. He took it in great humor, and I grew to admire him very, very much. I know his family and protégés from the Air Force will miss him.

The Path for Army Intelligence Leadership

Last year about this time, I covered “Three Key Promotions in U.S. Intelligence ” – and likened it to my young days as a Reagan-era Cold War Soviet analyst, practising Kremlinology by following personnel movements reported in the press.  Well, the Army Times recently reported on Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey’s latest General Officer assignments, and I have several observations about leading names among them.  They fall among those occupying positions which have been held by other leading defense intelligence figures before them, like Gen. Keith Alexander (now of NSA).

• Maj. Gen. John M. Custer, commander and commandant of the Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca, Fort Huachuca, Ariz., will become commander of U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

• Maj. Gen. Theodore C. Nicholas, director for operations for the Defense Joint Intelligence Operations Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, in Washington, will become deputy chief of staff for intelligence under Multi-National Force-Iraq, Iraq.

• Brig. Gen. Mary A. Legere, deputy chief of staff for intelligence for Multi-National Force-Iraq in Iraq will become commanding genera and commandant of the Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.


I first met Ted Nicholas, now headed for Baghdad, when he was assigned to run the DJIOC located at DIA. He was a fast-thinking, unassuming leader well-liked by those who worked for him… and he was a tireless critic of the levels of service he and his officers got from DIA’s IT shop. I expect he’ll rattle the cage in Iraq a bit.

Nicholas appears to be replacing Mary Legere, who actually replaced Nicholas as the J2 for U.S. Forces in Korea several years ago. I’m not certain what that says about their relevant positioning in future Army leadership posts; it may only signal that it was overdue time for Nicholas to leave DC and serve in a leading position in Iraq, while Legere has avoided Beltway duty for years.

One thing about Mary Legere: she’s brilliant – and I’m not just saying that because she bought me dinner in Korea one night, while I was visiting back in 2007. I’m saying it because she bested me in an argument over money. She was the J2 and had a not-so-secret agenda during my visit: get me to agree with her on several high-impact (and high-cost) requirements for intelligence systems to benefit her analysts. She was very persuasive in a likeable way – I think she relaxed her guard once she learned that I wasn’t some geek-speak engineer but had begun life, like her, as a political science major 🙂

And that face-to-face encounter reminds me of the time Gen. Custer (the new commander at INSCOM) wandered into my office at DIA, back in 2007. He had just been assigned to run the Army Intelligence Center (and “army intell school”) at Fort Huachuca, and was at DIA taking measure of what manner of support this “joint-focused” bureaucracy would give to an Army-green outfit like his. He also had a secret agenda: this visit was during a period when DIA’s CIO was battling with several other defense organizations over money for some big-ticket programs, and we’re talking well into the nine-figure-budgets here.  I was known as an advocate for an enterprise DoD and IC approach – arguing that what’s now called “purple” intelligence (a great neologism by Chris Rasmussen) has its own valuable benefits, over stovepiped systems to satisfy one particular itch or another.  Well, one afternoon in through my open office door breezed a true John Wayne character: Gen. John Custer cuts an impressive figure, and I didn’t often get two-stars or above wandering in without plenty of notice and hub-bub. But Custer wanted a friendly sit-down talk about the bureaucratic issues that were hampering DIA’s ability to support Army Intelligence.

“I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a war going on – a war between DIA and G2.”  Those were his words to me as he laid out the situation as he saw it, and went on to offer sensible, practical remedies that would bring the two organizations closer together.  Though I was already near the end of my four-year stint at DIA, I assured him that indeed I knew of the “war,” also wanted to see it end, and would lend my encouragement to the best efforts of all in enabling positive change.

I think there has been improvement over the past couple of years – and I note happily that Gen. Custer himself was invited by DIA to be the keynote speaker at its annual DoDIIS Conference last week.  He wowed the crowd, I’m told, and I’m not surprised.  He’ll bring a new spirit to his new command at INSCOM, just as he did at Ft. Huachuca, where he entered like Patton – here’s the 2007 account from the Arizona Daily Star:

Maj. Gen. John M. Custer III assumed the top job at Fort Huachuca and its intelligence school in a swirl of pageantry and bravado.

“Bring your courage, baby!” Custer urged hundreds of troops assembled for the change-of-command ceremony at the Army post 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

Cannons boomed, flags fluttered — and several soldiers fainted in the heat — as Custer took the reins…


Key Civilian Players at DoD

Finally, let’s not forget the civilian ranks at the Pentagon. Foreign Policy magazine’s online blog “The Cable” just ran a list of movers and shakers in Obama’s foreign policy team, including many of the usual suspects but also an intriguing hint that sometime within his first term the President may appoint the first female Secretary of Defense:

Michèle Flournoy: As under secretary of defense for policy, Flournoy is technically the Defense Department’s No. 3 official. But in the interagency process, according to many sources, Flournoy functions as the No. 2, attending the Deputies Committee meetings as the DoD’s civilian representative (Marine Gen. Jim Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represents the uniformed brass and is “a very influential voice on the Deputies Committee and with the president,” one White House associate said)…. She’ll take the lead in writing the Quadrennial Defense Review, the influential blueprint that will help shape U.S. strategic posture for the future. With conventional wisdom being that Defense Secretary Gates may not serve out a full term, and Deputy Secretary William Lynn focused on making the trains run on time, Flournoy’s ascent to even higher echelons of government seems likely.

Another key civilian addition to DoD is John Hale, who is joining the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), to try and accomplish there some of the magic he performed for the Intelligence Community at the IC Enteprise Services group under the ODNI CIO. Some of his best work as the ICES “Chief of Solutions Delivery” was in maintaining, improving, and upgrading community-wide services like Intellipedia and other Web 2.0 services (see for example Federal Computer Week’s “Intellipedia Becomes More User-Friendly“).  John has nearly two decades of experience in the intelligence community, ranging from stints at Air Force, the White House, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

At DISA, John will be working on “GIG Enterprise Services,” for the global information grid.  DISA is about to improve – and I’ll bet they’ll go real far, real fast.

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3 Responses

  1. Glad you got out to Redmond before being snowed in in Virginia…..Millie and Becky both report lots and lots of snow coming down and accumulating right on top of what was already there. Have a nice trip and let me hear from you when you get back east. Dad

    PS I enjoyed reading the above items which go back in time somewhat….I didn’t remember them of course, except the one about Gen. Leaf, who was Barbara’s dad I believe.


  2. Great website! I absolutely love how it is simple on my eyes and
    also the data are well written. I’m thinking how I could be informed whenever a fresh post has been created. I’ve subscribed to your feed which must do the trick! Have a pleasant day!


  3. Thank you so much for this humanizing of people in high places at a low time for America, when the most frequent sightings are reprobates not handling their jobs well. These men and women shine bright from the page. You give me hope. And thank you, too, for your service, then and now.


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