GLG’s Signature Series: Dr. Robert Gates, Former Secretary of Defense
Read time: 3 minutes
Recently, GLG sat down for a 60-minute discussion with Dr. Robert Gates, Former Secretary of Defense, for a virtual session with select GLG clients.
Dr. Gates served as U.S. Secretary of Defense from December 2006 to July 2011. He was the only Secretary of Defense in U.S. history asked to remain in that office by a newly elected president. President Barack Obama was the eighth president Dr. Gates served. Secretary Gates joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966 and spent nearly 27 years as an intelligence professional. During that period, he spent nearly nine years at the National Security Council in the White House, serving four presidents of both political parties.
Before Dr. Gates’s session, we asked him four questions about his thoughts on what the Biden administration should be looking at with regard to national security, the new Defense Secretary’s priorities, and the cybersecurity measures that the U.S. should be taking to protect its digital infrastructure.
What are the primary national security threats that the Biden administration should be focused on?
There are three levels of external threats to our national security: a) above all, great-power challenges from China and Russia; b) threats from lesser powers that still have formidable capabilities, specifically North Korea and Iran; and c) transnational threats such as cyber, pandemic disease, climate change, and terrorism. China will be the primary focus of the Biden administration, but the others will also have priority.
What advice would you give Secretary Austin on transitioning from a military to a civilian role and mindset?
In making the transition from a military to a civilian role, Secretary Austin needs to surround himself with strong, highly capable civilian advisors, especially in his own office. He needs to fill all the senior civilian jobs with capable people as quickly as possible (most such positions have been vacant or filled with “actings” for many months). And he needs to stay in the job for several years. (He is the eleventh secretary or acting secretary since I left 10 years ago. That kind of turnover inevitably weakens civilian authority.)
How should the U.S. approach its cyber strategy? Should it include cultivating offensive as well as defensive capabilities?
I created Cyber Command in 2010 to ensure that we were building both offensive and defensive capabilities. The biggest gap, as we have seen recently, is between threats launched from abroad (which NSA is very good at identifying and neutralizing) and threats from foreign sources but routed through servers in the U.S., where NSA has no authority to act. Those with authority to act — the FBI and Department of Homeland Security — have no capabilities outside of NSA. We have offensive capabilities but lack policies to use them effectively.
How would you recommend President Biden approach calibrating the U.S. defense budget, especially when so many Americans are struggling financially?
The defense budget today comprises only about 15% of federal expenditures (in 1960, it was 50%). It is not the source of the federal deficit, our budgetary problems, or the challenges facing Americans struggling financially. Further, the Sequestration Act in late 2011 cut defense by $600 billion. Because personnel costs were exempted and long-term procurement contracts are tough to change, the burden of those cuts fell primarily on operations, maintenance, and training. We have yet to recover from the consequences. To remedy the resulting problems and modernize our forces, defense needs 3 to 4% real growth every year going forward. Secretary Austin should advocate for this.
About Dr. Robert Gates
Dr. Robert M. Gates served as U.S. Secretary of Defense from December 2006 to July 2011.
Dr. Gates was the only secretary of defense in U.S. history asked to remain in that office by a newly elected president. President Barack Obama was the eighth president Dr. Gates served.
Before becoming the Secretary of Defense, Dr. Gates was the President of Texas A&M University, the nation’s seventh-largest university. Prior to assuming the Texas A&M presidency, on August 1, 2002, he served as Interim Dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M from 1999 to 2001.
Secretary Gates joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966 and spent nearly 27 years as an intelligence professional. During that period, he spent nearly nine years at the National Security Council in the White House, serving four presidents of both political parties.
Dr. Gates served as Director of Central Intelligence from 1991 until 1993. He is the only career officer in the CIA’s history to rise from entry-level employee to director. He served as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence from 1986 until 1989 and as Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor at the White House from January 20, 1989, until November 6, 1991, for President George H. W. Bush.
Secretary Gates has been awarded the National Security Medal and the Presidential Citizens Medal, has twice received the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, and has three times received the CIA’s highest award, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.
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