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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is considering undoing his predecessor’s last-minute decision to elevate the top civilian Pentagon official overseeing special operations matters, signaling his intent to continue rolling back the policies of the Trump administration.
Austin is weighing the move as he reassigns the senior official who most recently held that special operations role in the Trump administration, and looks to replace another official who served under Trump's former Pentagon chief.
The initial policy change on special operations, made in December by former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, put civilian oversight of America’s commandos on par with the civilian leaders of the military branches. The job had been lower down in the Pentagon’s bureaucracy.
The move was seen as a way to elevate the needs of America's elite special operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Marine Raiders — which have borne the brunt of the fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan over the past two decades. It was also designed to increase civilian oversight following the fatal ambush of U.S. special forces in Niger in 2017 and a series of scandals that have plagued the community. Miller is a former Green Beret.
But the move alarmed some experts, who were worried the outgoing defense secretary was tinkering with Pentagon bureaucracy on his way out the door.
Austin is considering lowering the special operations job back into the Pentagon’s policy shop, effectively demoting the position, according to two former Trump officials, one current defense official and a House aide familiar with the move. All of the people requested anonymity to discuss sensitive decisions.
The people expressed concern about the potential reversal, saying Austin was trying to undo Miller’s legacy at the expense of the Pentagon bureaucracy.
The move has the potential to “kneecap” civilian oversight of special operations, as policies would be made through the policy shop without input from the official overseeing the portfolio, one of the people said.
However, one former defense official argued that keeping the job where it is would mean that the civilian overseeing America’s commandos would have “little to no impact” on policy, the person said.
Austin has made no final decisions on the issue, another defense official said. Congress mandated the establishment of the direct reporting line in the 2017 defense policy bill signed by former President Barack Obama.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.
This would mark the latest Trump policy that President Joe Biden’s new administration has reviewed or undone at the Pentagon. Biden reversed Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military almost immediately after taking office, and froze Trump’s ordered troop drawdowns in Germany, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also canceled funding for Trump’s border wall, which had been drawn from the military’s coffers.
Meanwhile, Austin is also reassigning the senior Pentagon official who most recently served as the acting Pentagon official overseeing special operations. Joe Tonon, who held that position from December until January, is being moved to a position within the Navy, according to one former official and one current official.
Tonon, a career Navy intelligence official and a civilian, was most recently detailed to the deputy defense secretary's office. He was slated to move temporarily to the Pentagon's defense intelligence office with the expectation that he would ultimately be tapped to lead a new initiative within the department established late in the Trump administration.
He had the job offer in hand, but the day before he was supposed to make the move last week he was informed that he would be reassigned, the people said.
Tonon lost his pay raise and will likely now be "buried" in the Navy, one of the people said.
He assumed the acting role soon after Miller elevated the special operations position. The permanent position is a political one, but the law permits the White House to install a career official in the role on a temporary basis.
"This is really about the new folks coming in and kind of erasing [Miller's] legacy," the person said.
Meanwhile, Austin is looking at replacing Miller's executive secretary, Navy Capt. David Soldow, with a civilian, the second defense official said. Although Soldow was not scheduled to rotate out until this summer, a potential assignment came up and Austin wants to “give him the freedom to pursue that,” the person said.
Others characterized the potential move to reassign the executive secretary ahead of schedule as highly unusual. Two former officials and one current official with knowledge of the move saw it as another sign of Austin's campaign to replace people perceived as loyal to Miller.
The position is typically held by a uniformed officer and is not political.
Soldow signed a memo laying out the Pentagon's response to the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol last month; however, one of the former officials said his reassignment is not linked to the department's response to the insurrection.
Tonon declined to comment on the move. Soldow could not be reached for comment.
The reassignments come just weeks after Austin undertook a sweeping effort to oust last-minute Trump appointments to the defense advisory boards. This month, Austin fired all members serving on 31 panels, including the Defense Policy Board, the Defense Business Board and the Defense Innovation Board, and directed a “zero-based review" of the department's boards and commissions.
The move affects a number of controversial Trump allies, including Anthony Tata, the Pentagon acting policy chief until January who came under fire last year for Islamophobic and offensive tweets, and Scott O’Grady, a former Air Force pilot who spread false claims about election fraud on social media, from the policy board.
Austin also halted the in-processing of new members to the panels, effectively preventing a number of Trump acolytes, who were still completing paperwork and undergoing security checks, from actually serving on the boards. That included Trump's 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie. Also out is Kash Patel, who was Miller's chief of staff.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.