After five months of silence from the podium in the Pentagon briefing room, Defense Secretary James Mattis has selected a two-star Marine Corps general to act as a uniformed spokesman for the Defense Department. Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman, a reservist, is expected to begin briefing the Pentagon press corps on camera from now on, something that has not happened since May.
A general is now being selected to fill this newly created job for one basic reason, officials say. Both Mattis and the White House had recently been dissatisfied with Pentagon briefings and wanted a much higher military profile in the on-camera briefings. Several officials say Mattis and the White House wanted a military figure to act as spokesperson.
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Up until May, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White had conducted the briefings and though she will remain in her role, she is not expected to brief on camera on a regular basis. She has told other officials her schedule of increased travel with the secretary no longer allows her time for briefings. CNN reported in August that White was under investigation by the Defense Department Office of Inspector General for allegedly retaliating against staff members after she used some of them to conduct her personal errands and business matters.
Previously White had briefed jointly on camera with Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the joint staff. But McKenzie generally talked only about military operations and did not answer questions on policy matters. He also did not have the title of uniformed spokesman.
The decision to appoint Whitman is controversial because the military is supposed to remain outside the political arena, and with a member of the military acting as spokesperson reporters will not be able to ask questions about political aspects of decision making.
"Political considerations have always influenced the policymaking process at the Pentagon. To suggest otherwise is to disregard the whole concept of civilian control of the military," says retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, a CNN analyst.
Kirby did serve while in uniform as chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel but was asked by incoming Secretary Ash Carter to leave because Carter wanted a civilian spokesman. Kirby tells CNN that Carter would have let him stay if he had retired.
The Pentagon made the case that Whitman could answer policy questions, often regarding issues determined by political appointees, such as the controversy over transgender persons serving in the military. "Absolutely he is apolitical, so we will maintain that line," said Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, who added that Whitman will talk policy issues but not politics.
Kirby suggests putting a military person on the podium may have a beneficial impact for Mattis, as they could deliver credible information in a nonpolitical manner. "But he's also going to need the secretary's full support to protect him from the politics. It's not insurmountable, but it requires an active effort," Kirby said.
Whitman will serve on active duty in the new job. He most recently has served as commanding general of the 4th Marine Division, which includes 17,000 Marines and sailors. He has commanded forces in Bosnia, Iraq and during two tours in Afghanistan. In the private sector he has also served in several corporate jobs.