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Kash Patel

Kash Patel, now Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller’s chief of staff, is among the personnel changes in the Office of the Secretary of Defense following Mark Esper’s dismissal via tweet on Nov 9. Patel is known for his involvement in preparing a 2018 memo to discredit the Russia probe in his role as a staffer to Rep. Devin Nunes, former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Patel’s newly confirmed role as Head of DOD Transition has made headlines. Here is more context on the nature of past DOD transition leads. 

While much has been atypical about the initial leg of the presidential transition — namely, the sitting president’s contesting of the election, and the GSA’s delayed transfer of information and resources to the incoming administration’s team — a political appointee leading DOD’s transition is not part of this diversion from norms. During the transfers from Obama to Trump in 2016-17 as well as in Bush to Obama in 2008-09, the non-career SES Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense similarly were key figures in the DOD transitions. Under Obama, Eric Rosenbach oversaw the transition — logistical operations were managed by career senior executive Michael Rhodes, along with a support team. Likewise, in the well-regarded 2008-09 transition from Bush to Obama, then-Chief of Staff (formally Special Assistant to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense)  Ronald S. Rangel held responsibility as chair to the transition.  

Though the chief of staff role as department transition head is expected, the individual occupying the role signifies a shift: Patel assumed the role post-election, Nov. 10, while Rosenbach had served in the role for over a year prior to the transition, starting in July 2015, and Rangel assumed the position in 2005, over two years prior to the transition. Rosenbach was a former Army intelligence commander who had previously served in Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary roles at the Pentagon beginning in 2011. Likewise, Rangel was a defense insider, having worked in the House Armed Services Committee for over 18 years. Though a political appointee, Rangel’s professionalism is evidenced by his retention of his COS role in the Obama administration. Patel, in contrast, is newer to DOD, having begun service as senior advisor at ODNI earlier this year after time in the White House’s National Security Council and the DOJ. 

Across federal agencies, it is standard for a political appointee to oversee the career senior executive, although specificities of these roles vary from administration to administration. The bipartisan non-profit, Partnership for Public Service and the Boston Consulting Group produced this graphic, depicting a sample structure:

CaptureThe career senior executive executing the transition alongside Patel is Thomas M. Muir, a retired colonel who served in the U.S. Army for over 26 years. Muir retired from active duty in 2008 and has since served in leadership roles at the VA and DOD. Currently, he is director of Washington Headquarters Services and acting director of the Administration and Organizational Policy Directorate in the Office of the Chief Management Officer. In his capacity as director, he oversees managerial and organizational matters across the Office of the Secretary and ensures the integration of entities across the DOD enterprise. Typical of a high-ranking military service member, he holds degrees from U.S. military education institutions: a bachelors in engineering from West Point; a masters in military arts and sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; and a masters in strategic studies from the Army War College. 

Muir and others have been preparing the DOD for a smooth transition to the Biden administration since June, as the transition process traditionally starts far in advance of an election, with the preparation of extensive guides and personnel planning. The department reported that they held their first meeting with the DOD agency review team Nov. 24.

Given the particularly high stakes for national security during a transition, personnel switches before the inauguration are worth watching. Log in to Leadership Connect to stay up to date on the latest in the OSD

Maeve Sockwell

Maeve Sockwell

Research Analyst, Federal Government