Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021



Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, if confirmed as secretary of defense, will rejoin a senior adviser at the Pentagon who privately expressed some unconventional views on alliances with longtime U.S. friends abroad, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.

The senior adviser suggested that losing Taiwan to China would not be a “great insult” to the U.S. and expressed dislike for the American security agreement with Australia.

Gen. Austin ran the Joint Staff, a brass-heavy advisory unit for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was Navy Adm. Michael Mullen during the general’s tenure. Gen. Austin transferred to Iraq in September 2010 as commander of all U.S. forces and culminated his career as head of U.S. Central Command.

A key military adviser to Adm. Mullen was James H. Baker, then an Air Force colonel. Col. Baker directed the chairman’s “Action Team,” which was charged with giving the admiral strategic advice.

After his Air Force career, Mr. Baker won the prestigious post of director of the Office of Net Assessment in 2015. He presides there today producing confidential studies on global threats and has a direct line to the defense secretary, who would be his old colleague, Gen. Austin, in the incoming Joseph R. Biden administration.

In November 2010, while preparing Adm. Mullen for a conference in Australia, the Joint Chiefs chairman’s staff drew up “Asia scene setter” talking points for discussions about the region, according to documents provided to The Times by a congressional source.

Mr. Baker added his comments under “JHBaker.” He said losing Taiwan to China would not be a “great insult.”

“Should be last and least important to emphasize,” he wrote. “Losing Taiwan to China would not be a great insult to US national interests. The other two are nation states with real nations and a long history of enmity.”

The “other two” appears to be a reference to South Korea and Japan. The U.S. does not recognize Taiwan diplomatically. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act authorizes arms sales for the island’s defense.

Mr. Baker also dismissed a long-standing treaty with Australia. “I don’t believe in ANZUS,” he wrote.

ANZUS — the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty founded in 1951 — calls for the U.S. and Australia to cooperate on security matters. Australia and New Zealand cooperate separately.

Fast-forward to 2017, after Mr. Baker gained Office of Net Assessment directorship under President Obama. He wrote a paper titled “What are the threats ahead,” which touched on Taiwan as well as Israel.

It was the first year in office for President Trump, who was looking for ways to reduce the military’s troop commitment to anti-Islamic extremist wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

“Primacy advocates also face the problem of the increasing fragility of ambiguous commitments, commitments such as the defense of Taiwan, of Israel,” Mr. Baker wrote.

Foreign policy experts have termed the Taiwan Relations Act as somewhat ambiguous. However, the U.S. has recognized Israel since 1948 and supplies billions of dollars in front-line weapons. Mr. Obama was cool toward Israel, but Mr. Trump said there is “no daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state.

The Washington Times reached out to Mr. Baker for comment, and a defense official responded with a statement: “I can’t speak to any alleged remarks or notes from an alleged decade-old briefing because I don’t know the context of the briefing, the intent of the briefing, what positions the briefers were tasked with conveying, why the comments were provided, or what questions they answered. The Department would need the opportunity to review the alleged comments before providing a response to them.

“However, successive Secretaries of Defense and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs have tasked the Office of Net Assessment to provide various viewpoints — from a blue and red perspective — when assessing national security policy. The office‘s insights regarding the importance of a more lethal military and more capable allies were included in the Department’s National Defense Strategy, and their views on the danger China poses to the United States are repeatedly sought by senior policy makers across the U.S. government. Mr. Baker and the Office of Net Assessment will continue to provide their best advice and counsel, regardless of who holds the position of Secretary of Defense,” the Pentagon official said.

The Office of Net Assessment is now the subject of an inquiry by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, into how Mr. Baker has awarded research contracts worth millions of dollars.

A Pentagon inspector general’s report found that the office failed to document work products submitted by Stefan Halper. The longtime Washington national security scholar gained fame as the undercover agent whom the FBI assigned to spy on two Trump campaign volunteers.

On Dec. 18, Mr. Grassley upped the pressure on Mr. Baker and the Office of Net Assessment via a letter to acting Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell. The senator wants investigators to look more deeply into the office‘s operations.

The inspector general reported in August 2019 that the Office of Net Assessment did not follow basic contracting regulations in awarding research contracts. Focusing on four Halper studies for which he was paid $1 million, the inspector general said Mr. Halper failed to document that he had interviewed experts and visited places he listed in his work proposal to win the contract.

The Times reported in 2018 that Mr. Halper cited a number of well-known national security figures as consultants for his $244,000 study on Russian-Chinese relations. When The Times checked a large sample of those figures, they said they played no part and had not heard of the study.

Mr. Grassley said the Office of Net Assessment is stonewalling his requests for documents.

“I have made repeated requests for information from ONA,” he wrote to the inspector general. “ONA has provided documents, but has failed to produce all of them. Either ONA officials do not have possession of certain documentation required in Professor Halper’s contracts, or they’ve failed to comply with congressional demands.”

Mr. Grassley said the Office of Net Assessment has not carried out its core mission — producing a net assessment of global threats — since 2007. He said the office responded to his criticism in April by removing the word “shall” from the directive that requires net assessments.

“This is yet another example of ONA‘s apparent lack of effort to perform its mission on behalf of the American taxpayer and an effort to cover-up its previous failures to do the job for which it was designed,” Mr. Grassley wrote.

The Times asked Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Defense Department spokesman, to respond to Mr. Grassley.

Col. Orland said: “As stated multiple times over the past two years to Senator Grassley’s office, and as noted publicly, the Office of Net Assessment has formally published two net assessments since 2017. These highly classified products were briefed to and debated by senior leaders in the Department of Defense. In the past five years, ONA has also provided dozens of memos, briefings, and reports which provide a comparative assessment of the United States, its allies, and its adversaries on a variety of strategic issues, often at the direct request of the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, their Principal Staff Assistants, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Additionally, throughout this correspondence, we have provided hundreds of pages of documentation responsive to the Senator’s queries.”

Col. Orland provided a link to an Office of Net Assessment website that details its work since Mr. Baker took charge in 2015.

It says, in part: “ONA products include internally-produced assessments which represent years of detailed analysis. These assessments are highly classified, tightly controlled in distribution, and provide strategic-level management insights for the Secretary of Defense and other senior DOD leaders. Two such assessments have been completed since 2017.”

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