The U. S. defense community encompasses the best America has to offer: leadership, innovation, technology and vision. It’s a combination that has helped ensure the U.S. has fielded the best-trained, best-equipped military force in the world for nearly a century.
But the U.S. military does not exist in a vacuum. The world’s most powerful military operates under the civilian control of the president and his appointees and is funded through Congress; its size, shape and employment are determined by many influencers, both civilian and military. Some are elected; most are not. Some move in and out of government, alternating between stints in industry and think tanks, and others wield influence less visibly, sharing experience and wisdom behind closed doors.
This inaugural 100 Most Influential People in U.S. Defense list was compiled over five months by more than two dozen reporters and editors representing the world’s biggest military newsroom and the award-winning staffs of Gannett Government Media’s sector-leading publications: Defense News, Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, Marine Corps Times, Armed Forces Journal and Federal Times.
Any such list requires basic rules of the road. As we began this project, we settled on a few right away:
- President Barack Obama is not on the list. As commander in chief, he is not influencing the debate, but more often than not, deciding.
As the ultimate “decider” — which is how his predecessor, President George W. Bush, defined the job of president — Obama is the target of influencers, so access to the president to discuss and pursue objectives in setting defense policy figured powerfully in our ranking.
- Individuals’ personal influence — not just the power that comes with their offices — was foremost in our minds. What makes someone influential? One individual on the list explains it this way: “Influence is making change, it’s not just celebrity.”
- More than 200 candidates were nominated by staffers and vetted through sources. Each person’s clout in shaping American defense policy, strategy and capability was discussed, debated and analyzed.
Once the list was pared to about 125, we began the delicate ranking process. Candidates were tagged according to their spheres of influence — policy, money, intelligence, war, Congress, homeland security, the individual military services, industry, opinion shaping, cyberwarfare and veterans issues — and relative values were assigned to each. For those with multiple spheres of influence, their primary spheres were weighted over lesser areas, to create a composite score. Bonus points were awarded in some instances for individuals whose access to the president or other key leaders deserved special consideration.
In a few instances, most notably Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, the suspect at the center of the Wikileaks scandal, influencers made the list because of how some action might have affected policy, spending or regulation. Manning affected all three — not because of any great skill, but because his massive alleged data dump drove top officials to change policies affecting everyone with a security clearance, and because those changes will continue to unfold long after his court-martial is complete.
This list represents a snapshot in time. As new Pentagon and other second-term administration leadership changes take shape in the coming weeks, names will shift — or disappear. A lot can happen in one year, so expect next year’s edition to be quite different.
Finally, any list like this is inherently subjective. Does retired Gen. David Petraeus, for years considered America’s most powerful general, belong at the very bottom of the list? Or is he no longer a player at all? That’s where the conversation begins.