By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- President Obama late this afternoon nominated Harvard professor Ashton B. Carter, a leading authority on arms control, to take on a surprising new role, according to top administration officials -- as the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer.
The choice of Carter to run the office that oversees hundreds of billions of dollars for new weapons and research -- and the focus of intense lobbying by defense firms, retired generals, and members of Congress -- has been rumored for weeks. And word of his pending nomination has already sparked concern within the defense industry and some of the Pentagon bureaucracy.
But that may be exactly what Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates want.
Unlike most of his predecessors selected to be under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Carter has no professional ties to America's arms makers or manufacturing industry, nor has he spent his career in government procurement. Instead, from his perch at Harvard's Kennedy School, Carter has been criticizing the Pentagon for buying too many armaments it doesn't need, decrying what he calls a lack of discipline and "failure to take account of cost growth in weapons systems and defense services."
A trained scientist with a doctorate in theoretical physics and a degree in Medieval history, Carter's advocates say the long-time Harvard professor and national security specialist is being chosen because his combination of technical expertise and knowledge of defense strategy will be needed to make what Gates calls "difficult choices" about which weapons programs to invest in and which ones to terminate.
"He is not being brought in to help the defense industry thrive," said Loren Thompson, president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. "He is being brought in to decide what we need and what we can do without."
At a "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House today, Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee last year, highlighted serious cost overruns in the Pentagon budget as part of cutting the federal deficit, and said "tough decisions" on procurement need to be made as the country also pays for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"This is going to be one of our highest priorities," Obama replied.
Almost immediately after rumors surfaced that Carter was being considered for the high-profile job, Pentagon contractors and military procurement officials began waging a whisper campaign to raise doubts about the choice.
Some of them contend that Carter requires a special waiver from Obama in order to hold the post, citing an obscure law that asserts the candidate should have acquisition experience. (By contrast, the White House had to grant an ethics waiver to allow William Lynn III to become Gates's deputy because he was so close to the industry, having been a lobbyist for Waltham-based Raytheon.)
One former Pentagon acquisition chief and industry executive said he believes such experience is crucial to doing an effective job. "Having been in a factory and understanding the development process is what we were looking for," said the former official, who asked not to be identified because he was criticizing a presidential appointee.
But former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who drew up the original qualifications for the post as a member of the so-called Packard Commission in the 1980s, believes the language is being misused by those opposed to Carter's nomination and who fear he will buck the status quo.
The intent, he said, was to ensure the job wasn't filled by a political ally of the president with little or no experience in military matters, said Perry, who hired Carter for a top Pentagon policy position in the 1990s.
"Having held that job and supervised two different people who had that job I think I am pretty qualified to say who is qualified," Perry said in an interview. "My judgment is that a waiver is not required for Ash."
His mini-biography, provided by the White House, is below:
Dr. Ashton Carter, Nominee for Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Department of Defense
Carter, a physicist and current Chair of the International & Global Affairs faculty at the Kennedy School, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 1993 to 1996. He directed military planning during the 1994 crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program; was instrumental in removing all nuclear weapons from the territories of Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus; directed the establishment of defense and intelligence relationships with the countries of the former Soviet Union when the Cold War ended; and participated in the negotiations that led to the deployment of Russian troops as part of the Bosnia Peace Plan Implementation Force. Dr. Carter managed the multi-billion dollar Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) program to support elimination of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of the former Soviet Union, including the secret removal of 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Kazakstan in the operation code-named Project Sapphire. Dr. Carter also directed the Nuclear Posture Review and oversaw the Department of Defense's (DOD's) Counterproliferation Initiative. He directed the reform of DOD's national security export controls. In 1997 Dr. Carter co-chaired the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group with former CIA Director John M. Deutch, which urged greater attention to terrorism. From 1998 to 2000, he was deputy to William J. Perry in the North Korea Policy Review and traveled with him to Pyongyang. In 2001-2002, he served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism and advised on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Carter was twice awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given by the Department. In addition to his current position at the Kennedy School, Carter is Co-Director (with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry) of the Preventive Defense Project, a research collaboration of Harvard and Stanford Universities.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.