Carter Backs Centcom Chief Despite ISIS Testimony

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., right, have questions for Gen. Lloyd Austin III during a hearing on US military operations to counter ISIS, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter retained “full confidence” in the ability of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead U.S. Central Command following what Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the worst testimony at a Senate hearing he had ever heard.

“The secretary has full confidence in Gen. Austin,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. He said Austin had been “candid and forthright” in testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee \Wednesday on the campaign against ISIS and the civil war in Syria.

“This effort clearly has faced challenges,” Cook said of fight against ISIS, but Carter “still believes Gen. Austin can get the job done.”

At the hearing, Austin and Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, were challenged repeatedly by McCain, the panel’s chairman, and other senators from both sides of the aisle on their claims of progress against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Austin stunned the senators when he acknowledged that “we’re talking four or five people” who were actually on the ground in Syria as a result of the $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels to battle ISIS in Syria.

The senators also ripped Austin for appearing to sidestep their questions on a U.S. response to the Russian buildup in Syria, and they challenged him on whether his intelligence staff was skewing reports to back up his claims of progress.

Part of his testimony was simply wrong. At one point, Austin appeared to suggest that U.S. Special Forces were on the ground in Syria helping friendly forces.

CentCom later put out a correction:  “There are no U.S. military forces on the ground in Syria, nor have we conducted any U.S. military training of indigenous Syrian forces in Syria.”

McCain told Austin and Wormuth, “I’ve been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years and I’ve never heard testimony like this, never.”

At a Pentagon briefing, Cook was also asked whether Austin’s performance reflected a “vacuum of leadership” in the top ranks that extended to Carter, who has focused considerable time on his “Better Buying Power” initiative and other business and personnel issues since succeeding Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary last February.

Cook said that Carter was “actively engaged in every aspect of this fight” against ISIS. “To suggest otherwise would be incorrect. This is a very busy secretary even if others from the outside have a different point of view.”

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.