Mr. Esper got the nod for the position after the surprise announcement Tuesday by acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan that he is withdrawing from the nomination for the post after several news organizations pursued stories related to domestic violence incidents involving the Shanahan family from 2011. The incidents reportedly were the subject of an FBI background investigation.
Mr. Shanahan, who was confirmed as deputy defense secretary in July 2017, took over as acting defense chief on Jan. 1 after the resignation of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in December. Mr. Mattis resigned over a disagreement with President Trump and had hoped to remain in the post through the spring but was instead fired by the president.
In a statement, Mr. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, said the Pentagon has made significant progress in the past two years in rebuilding and modernizing the military “to compete with China and Russia.”
“We are developing capabilities that will ensure American military leadership for decades to come in space, cyber, hypersonic missiles, and much more,” he said.
Noting the confirmation process, he stated that “it is unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way in the course of this process.”
Mr. Shanahan said he welcomed the opportunity to be defense secretary, “but not at the expense of being a good father.”
Both Mr. Mattis and Mr. Shanahan identified their political affiliations as “independent.”
Mr. Esper, by contrast, worked on Capitol Hill as a Republican staff member to several members of Congress, including the late Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, who ran the 1990s investigation into China’s influence campaign directed at backing the reelection of President Clinton.
The experience investigating China election influence is an indication he is expected to continue the Pentagon’s new harder line policies toward China.
A graduate of the class of 1986 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Mr. Esper also was an infantry officer who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division.
More intel on South China Sea
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is calling for greater intelligence-gathering on the strategic South China Sea where China is engaged in a covert takeover the waterway through militarized disputed islands.
The committee’s combined intelligence authorization bill for fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020 passed last month and could be added to the current defense authorization bill as an amendment. Debate on the defense bill is set to begin Thursday.
The intelligence bill calls for a defense briefing on the South China Sea and the committee report on the bill noted worries about intelligence “gaps” on the South China Sea and the need to close them.
“The South China Sea is an area of great geostrategic importance to the United States and its allies,” the report said. “However, China’s controversial territorial claims and other actions stand to undercut international norms an erode the region’s stability.”
To maintain “respect for international law” requires maintaining strong intelligence activities, it said.
Congressional intelligence and defense committees will be told of any “known intelligence collection gaps” on Chinese operations in the sea.
The briefing will identify gaps and whether the shortcomings are the result of a lack of access, lack of collection capabilities or legal or policy authorities.
The briefing also will provide intelligence assessment of the methods for closing existing gaps and plans for dealing with shortcomings in the future year’s defense program.
American spy agencies utilize a number of spying methods to keep tabs on Chinese military activities in the South China Sea. They include imagery satellites, intelligence aircraft such as U-2 spy planes and EP-3 surveillance aircraft, drones and warships, intelligence ships and submarines.
The Pentagon announced earlier this month it will sell 34 ScanEagle drone aircraft to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Those drones will provide additional intelligence coverage of the waters around the sea.
China has claimed 90% of the South China Sea as its territorial waters under the so-called Nine-Dash Line.
The line was ruled illegal after a challenge by the Philippines government in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The intelligence bill also calls for greater U.S. intelligence support to the export control process over concerns about Chinese covert acquisition of goods with both commercial and military applications.
“The committees have significant concerns that China poses a growing threat to United States national security, due in part to its relentless efforts to acquire
United States technology,” the committee report says. “China purposely blurs the distinction between its military and civilian activities through its policy of “military-civilian fusion” which compounds the risks of diversion of United States technology to the Chinese military.”
Currently, the U.S. government lacks a comprehensive policy and tools to address the problem and China has been exploiting weaknesses in existing mechanisms that seek to prevent “dangerous technology transfers, including the U.S. export control system.”
Specific concerns are a lack of effective intelligence support to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, the unit in charge of enforcing export controls.
More intelligence “could have prevented many of the ill-advised technology transfers that have occurred in recent years,” the report said.
The committee also wants U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a comprehensive assessment of Chinese investment in key U.S. technology companies that will examine the national security threat of Chinese-backed U.S. investments.
Another section of the bill calls for a “sense of Congress” measure to designate the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service, often abetted by state actors, and should be treated as such.”
Vacuum at broadcasting agency
Leadership problems continue at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors, that is in charge of the $800 million network of official and semi-official U.S. radios.
According to a person close to the agency, current Chief Executive Office John Lansing has told the staff he will not be in the office this summer as he plans to work remotely from Wisconsin. Several other positions at the agency remain empty or held by acting officials, including at least one Obama administration holdover.
The current deputy director at the agency is an acting official, Chief Financial Officer Grant Turner.
One of the officials who is said to be seeking to take control over the agency during the leadership vacuum is Shawn Powers, a former Obama administration official who holds the title of “senior adviser” and “acting chief strategy officer.”
According to the person close to the agency, Mr. Powers has been attempting to reorganize the USAGM by placing staff under his authority.
Another agency official, Deputy Director for Operations Matt Walsh, was promoted to a Senior Executive Service position — with an accompanying salary of between $126,000 a year to $189,000 a year for no apparent reason.
The agency official in charge of congressional affairs, Ellona Fritschie, has taken an extended leave of absence. The Trump administration political appointee at the office has quit.
The administration nominated conservative filmmaker Michael Pack to take over as agency CEO but the nomination has been slowed by delays.
First, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, opposed Mr. Pack’s nomination because he supports Mr. Lansing and did not want him replaced. That resulted in a lengthy delay in the nomination process.
Another reason for the delay in getting Mr. Pack in place is opposition from members of the agency’s board. Four board members, including Chairman Kenneth Weinstein, who is also chairman of the Hudson Institute, are said to be making money from their board work and once Mr. Pack is confirmed, their income will dry up as the board will be disbanded in favor of a Senate confirmed CEO.
Suzanne Wrase, a spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the panel has received the paperwork needed for the nomination but that a hearing has yet to be held. She did not explain why there has been no hearing.
Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett, also an Obama-era holdover, is expected to be replaced once Mr. Pack is confirmed for the USAGM post.
The agency did not return emails seeking comment on the leadership problems.
The agency is in charge of the Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, along with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.
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