Seven former defense secretaries on Thursday sharply criticized Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville for his blanket hold on senior military promotions as dangerous to national security and cruel to individual military families.
The letter — signed by both Republican and Democratic nominees to the top Pentagon post — is the latest salvo in the ongoing fight between the Biden administration and the Republican senator, who is objecting to the Defense Department’s abortion access policies by snarling normally routine Senate confirmation business.
Tuberville, a Republican, began his holds in March. They now include about 200 general and flag officers awaiting promotion and new assignments, plus several civilian Defense Department nominees. In a letter to Senate leaders, the group of former defense secretaries called the move “irresponsible and uncaring” and urged resolution to the issue.
“We appreciate that senators can have sincere and legitimate concerns about a Pentagon policy, including as it may relate to broader domestic or social issues,” they wrote. “However, we believe placing a hold on all uniformed nominees risks turning military officers into political pawns, holding them responsible for a policy decision made by their civilian leaders.”
Signers of the letter were Jim Mattis, Mark Esper, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, William Cohen and William Perry. The list includes every living individual confirmed to the defense secretary post since 1994 except current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Tuberville has said he won’t drop his objection until military officials pull back the defense policy announced last fall which provides leave time and stipends for troops and qualified family members to travel across state lines to receive abortion services.
Military leaders have said the move was needed to preserve troops’ medical rights following a number of states outlawing abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the long-standing Roe v. Wade ruling last summer.
A series of defense officials have criticized Tuberville’s holds in testimony on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, but Tuberville said he has not seen any evidence that military readiness is being jeopardized by the political fight.
Among the command positions stalled by the move are the new head of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, the new head of the 7th Fleet in the Pacific, and the next director of intelligence at U.S. Cyber Command.
“If this blanket hold is not lifted, nearly 80 three- and four-star commanders who are ending their terms in the coming months will not be able to be replaced,” the former defense secretaries wrote.
Lawmakers can call up individual nominations and promotions for full-chamber votes, and have done so for a few posts already. But going through all 200 could take months of procedural votes.
Senate Republican leaders have either supported Tuberville’s holds or declined public requests to convince the Alabama lawmaker to find an alternative way to object to the abortion issues.
In a statement following the defense secretaries’ letter, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., reiterated his objection to Tuberville’s holds.
“This blockade is a profound attack on the professionalism of our military,” he said in a statement. “It needs to end. These officers earned their military promotions based on their merits. They do not deserve to be prevented from promotions and positions … because of policy issues that are beyond their control.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.