Secretary of Defense: Who Is Ashton Carter?
On September 5, 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense, to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
Carter was born September 24, 1954, in Philadelphia to William and Anne Carter. Carter’s father was a psychologist and neurologist who worked at Abington Memorial Hospital outside Philadelphia during the time the younger Carter was growing up. Carter attended Highland Elementary School and then Abington High School, where he ran cross-country, participated in wrestling and lacrosse and was president of the Honor Society. Carter was a hard worker even as a youth. He got his first job, at a car wash, at age 11, but was soon fired for, as he put it, “wise-mouthing the owner.” Carter’s a bit more diplomatic now, but colleagues and others say he continues to this day not to suffer fools gladly. Other early jobs were pumping gas, working as a hospital orderly, being a mate on a fishing boat and working as a telephone suicide prevention counselor.
He graduated from Abington in 1972 and moved on to Yale, where he majored in medieval history and physics, two disciplines rarely found represented on one diploma. His senior thesis was on “Quarks, Charm and the Psi Particle.”
Upon graduation in 1976, Carter considered following his father into medicine but won a Rhodes Scholarship that entitled him to continue his studies at Great Britain’s Oxford University. There he studied theoretical physics, earning a Ph.D. in 1979. After graduation, he worked as a researcher into time-reversal invariance and dynamical symmetry breaking, or the idea that the world could run backwards according to the same laws by which it runs forwards, at Rockefeller University in New York.
Carter’s first government work came in 1980, when he began to analyze proposals for basing the MX missile system for Congress. Some of the plans involved moving missiles around the country between silos so the Soviets wouldn’t know which bases to attack. He moved to the Department of Defense the following year, continuing his work in the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation.
In 1982, Carter joined the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He attracted attention when his research on President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program showed that it would not protect the United States from nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Carter moved across town to Harvard University in 1984, teaching policy issues at the Kennedy School of Government. He also began to study what to do about the Soviet Union’s stockpile of nuclear weapons after the breakup of the country. In 1988 he was made associate director of the school’s Center for Science and International Affairs and in 1990 was made director. He continued his work on fighting proliferation of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
He took that mission back to the Pentagon in 1993 when President Bill Clinton made him assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. His confirmation was held up for a couple months, but he was confirmed 76-18 and concentrated on implementing the Nunn-Lugar program to remove nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
He returned to Harvard and the Kennedy School in 1996, but also worked with the State Department beginning in 1998 on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, a project that would occupy him for some time. During this period, he also wrote, lectured and consulted on international policy issues. Among other things, he served on the board of trustees for the MITRE Corporation, a non-profit organization that manages federally funded defense research. He was also a senior partner at Global Technology Partners, advising investment firms on defense and technology opportunities.
In 2006, Carter, with former Defense Secretary William Perry, wrote an article suggesting that then-President George W. Bush solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear capability by “surgically” bombing its missile sites. “Such a strike could be seen by the North Korean leadership for what it is: a limited act of defense of the U.S. homeland against a gathering threat, and not an overall attack on North Korea,” Carter and Perry optimistically wrote.
Carter returned to the Executive Branch in 2009 as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. Because he had received consulting fees from defense contractor Textron (not to mention Raytheon and Goldman Sachs), he had to be issued an ethics waver to avoid Obama administration restrictions on revolving door conflicts.
In this position, he worked to ensure that U.S. troops got as much protective gear as possible while cutting nonfunctioning programs. One bit of equipment he pushed for was protective underwear for troops who might step on an IED. At least one father of a wounded soldier personally thanked Carter for keeping open the possibility that the man might someday be able to be a grandfather.
In August 2011, Carter was named deputy secretary of defense and as such was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Pentagon under Hagel. In that job, Carter was known for speaking forcefully in policy discussions, in contrast to the more reticent Hagel. He created one controversy when he claimed at a security conference that nuclear weapons “just aren’t that expensive.” Carter also has said that the United States should have left more troops in Afghanistan. He was respected by the military, even though he’s never worn a uniform, and by legislators on both sides of the aisle, which probably accounts for his nomination.
Carter left the Defense Department in 2013 and did some consulting work before being nominated by Obama for the Pentagon’s top job. In September 2014 he was appointed senior executive at the Markle Foundation. The press release announcing his appointment said that he would lead “efforts to develop creative and scalable solutions to grow businesses by focusing on key opportunity areas. These include helping Americans provide services into global markets, using open data to offer growth opportunities, using information technology to enable middle skilled Americans to do work that used to require years of training, and improving access to capital.”
Carter and his wife, Stephanie, have often visited deployed troops during holidays and recovering wounded military members. They have two grown children, Will and Eva.
To Learn More:
Abington Recalls ‘Brilliant’ Alum Said In Line to Lead Pentagon (by Jessica Parks and Michaelle Bond, Philadelphia Inquirer)
Can a Wonk Run a War? (by Michael Crowley, Politico)
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter Joins Markle Foundation (Markle Foundation)
Faculty Career Profile (by Ashton B. Carter, Harvard University)
Obama Administration Underestimated Cost of Maintaining Nuclear Weapons by $140 Billion (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)
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