'Smartest guy in the room': Pentagon R&D chief under fire after controversial firings

By Tony Bertuca, Justin Doubleday, Jason Sherman  / June 28, 2019

Key lawmakers are closely examining the behavior and decision-making of the Defense Department's technology chief, spurred by high-profile personnel departures from his office.

Mike Griffin earlier this month, according to government sources, orchestrated early departures within days of each other for former Strategic Capabilities Office Director Chris Shank and former Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy.

The moves, more than a dozen current and former government officials tell Inside Defense, are in line with a well-known pattern of controversial decision-making, turf fighting and abrasive behavior.

But the abrupt exits have alarmed officials at the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill, particularly because Shank and Kennedy were Griffin's personal friends and hand-picked for their jobs.

Monica Matoush, a spokeswoman for the Democratic majority on the House Armed Services Committee, said the actions of Griffin, who the Senate confirmed as under secretary of defense for research and engineering in February 2018, have begun to worry lawmakers.

"The current state of affairs is both unsettling and perplexing," she said.

Other House and Senate staffers confirmed lawmakers' concerns about Griffin are bipartisan.

Griffin's office declined to provide comment for this story.

Committee members, Matoush said, are especially worried about the fledgling SDA, an organization that has been called a top Pentagon priority, but is now -- like much of DOD -- without a permanent leader.

"Dr. Griffin recently briefed several members about his plans for SDA and how it would bring much needed order and focus to the space acquisition process," Matoush said. "The members were complimentary of his discussion points and the way forward, but these recent actions are cause for growing concern, given there are now critical vacancies to fill in this important mission space. We hope to hear soon the plan to get SDA back on the rails and ensure there are no obstacles to its success." 

Lawmakers have also expressed worries about Griffin's attempts to realign the SCO under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a move they fear could potentially stifle what many consider a successful and agile weapons development organization. The Joint Staff and combatant commands also oppose Griffin's plan.

An official familiar with the situation said Griffin demanded Shank's resignation in mid-June after accessing email exchanges between congressional staff and Shank, in which he dissented from Griffin's plan to move SCO under the purview of DARPA.

According to a government source, Griffin's ouster of Shank had a "chilling effect" on the rest of the research and engineering organization he manages. The source called the retrieval of Shank's emails "straight out of '1984,'" referring to George Orwell's seminal novel.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees, meanwhile, have approved fiscal year 2020 defense authorization bills that would halt realignment of the SCO until the defense secretary provides a full report to lawmakers.

Less than a week after Shank's departure, Kennedy resigned from SDA.

According to a government official, Griffin disagreed with Kennedy's emphasis on leveraging commercial space investments for DOD's envisioned Low Earth Orbit satellite constellation. The dispute created tension between Griffin and Kennedy on how to run SDA, leading to delays in hiring as well as developing the agency's acquisition strategies, according to the official.

The situation came to a head, the official said, when Kennedy discovered new candidates were being interviewed to replace him. Kennedy subsequently submitted his resignation.

One senior defense official said Griffin is simply doing his job and running a tight ship.

"Both the SCO and SDA decisions were for legitimate reasons and reflect Griffin holding people accountable," the official said.

The senior defense official also dismissed media speculation that Griffin is set to leave office or is being pushed out.

Battling with the services

Multiple sources say Griffin has spent much of his time arguing with the military services and trying to expand the authorities of his office.

Griffin, the sources said, has frequently voiced frustration over his office's lack of budget authority to direct the military services' key technology investments.

"The service secretaries can't stand him because he's always trying to get control of their programs," a former senior DOD official said.

Griffin has clashed regularly with service officials, but especially former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Will Roper, the Air Force's acquisition chief, according to several current and former government officials.

Roper oversees the service's space and hypersonic weapons developments. Former government officials said Griffin wanted more control and insight into the military services' research and development programs, including Air Force hypersonic developments.

Multiple sources said Griffin and Roper -- two of the top technology officials within DOD -- try to avoid speaking to each other due to their differences.

"He and Roper can't be in the same room together," a former DOD official said.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said she could not characterize Roper’s relationship with Griffin.

"I don’t have any insight into their relationship other than that they are colleagues,” she said.

However, defense officials said Griffin had a close relationship with and the support of former acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan.

Sources said Griffin's future may be less certain now Shanahan has left the Pentagon and acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper is slated to be nominated to fill the job permanently.

"Esper obviously knows about all these problems because Esper is a service secretary and got to see it firsthand," one former DOD official said.

Trouble at NASA

Griffin’s reputation for controversial behavior is widely known, according to multiple sources, and includes his time as NASA administrator during the Bush administration.

Lori Garver, who ran the NASA transition team for the Obama administration, said Griffin was uncooperative when she arrived and that he instructed NASA employees not to talk to her and her team.

"The exiting NASA Administrator in 2008 was insolent and dismissive to the landing team," she told Inside Defense. "People were told it would be 'career limiting' if they talked to us, so it was hard to get the information we needed to do our job at first."

Garver, who later served as deputy NASA administrator under Obama, said officials from the Bush White House asked her if Griffin should be removed early.

"President Bush had pledged to oversee a smooth transition and at one point his team offered to end Mike's tenure early," she said. "I told them that would not be necessary and just kept working."

A congressional staffer who interacted with Griffin when he ran NASA said he was known as a difficult personality.

"If the accusation is arrogance -- it rings true," the staffer said. "In my experience from when he was at NASA, he is someone who is convinced of his own rightness. It really surprised me when he fired Chris Shank because Chris has been a loyal soldier in the Griffin camp for a long time. Griffin is definitely someone who collects people and expects them to do his bidding."

Seven current and former government officials independently interviewed by Inside Defense said Griffin is convinced -- and sometimes even says -- he is "the smartest guy in the room."

A former senior defense official commented that Griffin has a "widespread reputation" for being hard to work with "because of his personality."

"There seems to be an unusually high level of drama in his organization right now," the former official noted.

'We need to be able to control the funding'

Griffin has publicly told Congress of his frustrations with the limitations of his job.

In response to advance policy questions prior to his January 2018 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Griffin noted the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which created the USD R&E position, did not give the office "the authority to direct the secretaries of the military departments and the heads of all other elements within the department with regard to matters for which the under secretary has responsibility."

Griffin has also pointed this out to the Government Accountability Office.

After being confirmed for the R&E position, Griffin again highlighted the lack of authorities during posture hearings later in the year.

"The broad and sweeping powers that the NDAA '17 allocated to us are more broad and sweeping powers to offer advice," he said during an April House Armed Services Committee hearing. "The USD R&E doesn't really have much in the way of specific directive authority to control what is or is not done, so it's more the power to persuade. I hope I am an effective persuader."

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing the same week, Griffin said "it was a very good idea" to delegate authority for most programs to the services. But he suggested his position at the Office of the Secretary of Defense should be akin to a "vice president for programs" within a private company.

"I've run two companies and we didn't run them on the committee system," he said. "That, I think, gives you a flavor of the kind of authority that we need to have. We do not, in OSD, in my opinion, need to be running programs, but we need to be able to control the funding and the overall direction of those programs in a way that is collaborative."

Former Capitol Hill staffers with knowledge of Griffin's confirmation process and subsequent dealings with defense committees said it is unsurprising that his office has been beset by disruptions and allegations of poor management.

"This was always going to happen -- he's a toxic leader," one former staffer said. "He thinks he is the smartest person in the room, he is condescending, and he is incapable of hiding it. Now look -- he is a smart guy. But he doesn't play well with others."

A second former Hill staffer said Griffin burned bridges with lawmakers who made clear in recently passed legislation they did not want his office to control the military’s R&D budgets.

"He wants to put everything under his control," the former staffer said. "He really butted heads with the services. He wanted space, even though it wasn't his job."

Current and former congressional staffers said Griffin enjoyed some popularity upon entering office because of the public focus he placed on regaining technological ground lost to China, especially in the area of hypersonic missiles.

Multiple officials, however, said the leadership vacuum at DOD may have contributed to some of Griffin’s controversial behavior.

"The chaos in DOD leadership is evident," a congressional staffer said. "In another era, this would be a major problem. But now?"

Several sources said Griffin has been able to act unimpeded since the Jan. 1 departure of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

One official highlighted that Griffin is one of the only senior leaders at DOD to have been confirmed by the Senate. The defense secretary, the deputy defense secretary and the chief management officer -- DOD’s top civilian leaders -- have all been in acting status for months.

"With so few people confirmed and no real SECDEF? You get away with a lot," said a congressional staffer.

But Congress appears poised to further curtail Griffin’s authority.

Along with authoring legislation that would block any transfer of the SCO without a comprehensive report, the House Armed Services Committee's version of the FY-20 defense authorization bill calls for a study on shifting the Missile Defense Agency away from Griffin's R&E organization.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill would withdraw the SDA from Griffin's organization and move it under a new Air Force senior space acquisition executive.

Griffin's job was always going to be challenging because the R&E chief has to introduce innovative practices and emerging technologies across DOD's large bureaucracy, according to Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon official who now works as an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Having said that, I still don't see a clear articulation of how R&E is tackling that job," he added. "What are the tools? What are the mechanisms that they are using to solve that problem, to be the instigators of innovation in the Department of Defense, and how are they using those tools?"

Hunter said the departures of Kennedy and Shank raise more questions about the overall strategy of the R&E organization.

"What's the vision?" Hunter said. "To my mind, this turmoil is a reflection of the fact that the vision just isn't settled."