- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Hundreds of members serving on more than three dozen Pentagon advisory boards must resign in the next two weeks or be fired, Defense Department officials said Tuesday, revealing a sweeping, “zero-based” review of the panels that help guide military policy on education, business, science, and even the renaming of Army bases.

The unprecedented purge of 42 boards will directly affect controversial appointees by the Trump administration, including key allies to former President Donald Trump such as political advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, who were given spots on the Defense Business Board late last year. Other Trump associates, among them former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also were appointed to other Pentagon advisory panels in what critics cast as an eleventh-hour effort to stock the defense establishment with allies of the former president.

Tuesday’s announcement makes clear that President Biden and new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are willing to take drastic measures in order to break with the previous administration and to root out Trump allies. Without the move, Trump associates could have served for years on the Defense Policy Board, Defense Innovation Board, Defense Science Board and dozens of other obscure panels that have suddenly been thrust into the political spotlight.

In a memo to senior Pentagon leadership explaining the review, Mr. Austin sought to quickly put his stamp on the Defense Department by ordering a first-of-its-kind restructuring.

“I am aware of and appreciate earlier review efforts to reshape how we use advisory committees and consider the tangible benefits they bring to the department. Nevertheless, I am directing a zero-based review of all DoD advisory committees, to include any advisory committee that is not subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act,” he wrote in the Jan. 30 memo made public Tuesday.

To reform and streamline the board system, Mr. Austin believes it best to essentially start from scratch, Pentagon officials told reporters Tuesday. The operations of all 42 advisory boards will be temporarily suspended as the review process unfolds, and all members — with the exception of individuals who were directly appointed by the president — must resign by Feb. 16 or face termination.

“No question the secretary was deeply concerned with the pace and the extent of recent changes to memberships of department advisory committees, done with a bit of frenetic activity in the final two months of the previous administration,” a senior defense official said.

Officials described the Trump administration’s flurry of last-minute appointments as “unprecedented,” though the Pentagon did not explicitly cast their review process as a politically motivated purge. 

None of those affected by the order are full-time Pentagon employees. Most members of advisory boards are unpaid, officials said, and essentially serve as outside experts to help shape defense policy.

Officials did not have an exact estimate on how much it costs to run the 42 panels, though one senior Pentagon official estimated it to be in the millions of dollars.

Despite the boards’ limited role, the effects of the review could be broad and long-lasting. For example, Mr. Austin’s order includes a recently established commission to examine renaming military bases currently named after Confederate generals. The four individuals appointed to that commission by former Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller — Sean McLean, Joshua Whitehouse, Ann G. Johnston and Earl Matthews — will be dismissed.

In removing those members from the panel, the Pentagon granted the wishes of some Democrats in Congress who argued that anyone appointed by Mr. Trump could not effectively serve. They accused Mr. Trump of inciting his supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They argued that some of those supporters were ideologically aligned with the Confederate cause, creating an inherent conflict.

“The Confederacy was a shameful reminder of the danger that racism poses to our democracy,” members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Mr. Austin. “Given the context of this attack on our democracy, the work of removing Confederate names from the Department of Defense cannot be trusted to appointees of a president who gave aid and comfort to the ideological heirs of the Confederacy.”

The broader review will be led by the Pentagon’s director of administration and management and acting general counsel. They will make recommendations to Mr. Austin by June 1, officials said. 

In addition to essentially clearing all advisory board memberships, officials said the review could result in some boards being eliminated entirely or merged with others.

“There is potential overlap in some responsibilities and tasks,” a senior defense official said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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