Kathleen Hicks is Biden’s pick to be first female deputy Defense secretary

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Lara Seligman
·3 min read
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President-elect Joe Biden has picked Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official under President Obama, to serve as deputy secretary of defense. If confirmed, she would make history as the first woman to hold the No. 2 Pentagon job.

Formerly a civil servant in the office of the secretary of defense who rose to hold several top policy and strategy posts, Hicks has been the rumored front runner for the No. 2 Pentagon job for months.

Since November, Hicks has led the Biden transition effort at the Pentagon as director of the Department of Defense agency review team. She most recently served as senior vice president, Henry Kissinger chair and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Biden has also settled on Colin Kahl, another former Pentagon official overseeing Middle East Affairs who was national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, be undersecretary of defense for policy. Kahl is currently co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

In his previous positions at the Pentagon, Kahl played a lead role in the Iraq drawdown, countering Iran, and strengthening the U.S. defense relationship with Israel, according to a statement from the transition.

“These respected, accomplished civilian leaders will help lead the Department of Defense with integrity and resolve, safeguard the lives and interests of the American people, and ensure that we fulfill our most sacred obligation: to equip and protect those who serve our country, and to care for them and their families both during and after their service," Biden said in a statement.

"Dr. Kath Hicks and Dr. Colin Kahl," he added, "have the broad experience and crisis-tested judgment necessary to help tackle the litany of challenges we face today, and all those we may confront tomorrow. They will be trusted partners to me, the vice president-elect, and Secretary-designate Austin — as well as our dedicated civilian and military team — as we work to restore responsible American leadership on the world stage.”

Meanwhile, Kelly Magsamen, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs now at the Center for American Progress, will be Pentagon chief of staff, officials told POLITICO.

The choice of Hicks is in some ways an olive branch to a prominent group of female national security leaders who pushed for Biden to choose Michèle Flournoy, another former Obama Pentagon official, for the top Pentagon job. Biden passed over Flournoy to choose Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star general, as his defense secretary nominee.

Hicks “knows the building, long history there. Plus, glass shattering pick,” said one of the people. “Having gender diversity is important at the top.”

The move also sends a signal that Biden wants stronger civilian oversight of the military, after the Pentagon’s civilian workforce declined in numbers and influence throughout President Donald Trump’s presidency. Some experts worried that choosing another former military officer to run the Pentagon, just four years after Trump picked retired Gen. Jim Mattis as his first defense secretary, would further erode civilian control of the building.

Austin said in a statement Wednesday that Hicks and Kahl "share my strong belief that we need empowered civilian voices serving alongside military leaders at the Department of Defense to ensure we are always accountable to the American people."

It also is a reassuring sign to members of the national security community who have sounded the alarm over Austin’s lack of experience in countering China, which they believe is the Pentagon’s most urgent challenge. She helped implement Obama’s pivot to Asia at the Pentagon in the early 2010s, and has written frequently on China’s rise.

Hicks did not respond to a request for comment. A transition spokesperson declined to comment.

Tyler Pager contributed to the report.