Big change in JFCOM debate

Published 7:42 pm Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Things seem to have changed a lot since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced in August his plans to close U.S. Joint Forces Command.

After months of ignoring congressional requests for information about the decision and for a meeting to discuss it, Gates finally met personally on Tuesday with Gov. Bob McDonnell and the state’s congressional delegation.

The meeting was remarkable, considering the lack of concern or respect that Gates and his designees had shown for Congress and the governor in the months following the original announcement. Virginia’s governor, its senators and congressmen from the Hampton Roads area all had complained that they couldn’t even get Gates to return their calls in the months following the Secretary’s announcement that he intended to shut down the command, which employs more than 2,000 at a facility in North Suffolk.

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Things had gotten so bad that Forbes threatened last month to resort to compelling Gates’ testimony before the House Armed Services Committee via that committee’s power of subpoena if the Secretary did not become more cooperative.

That threat followed two days of largely unproductive hearings in which Pentagon representatives sent on Gates’ behalf were unable to satisfy either the House of Representatives or the Senate that they had based the decision to close JFCOM on solid data.

But even after the threat had been made, Gates and the Pentagon remained unresponsive to requests to shed some light on the process that led to the decision, and they offered no reason to believe there was hope that part or all of JFCOM could be saved — at least, not until late last week, when it was announced that the Secretary would meet with the Virginia delegation.

News of the meeting came as a surprise to those who have been following the issue, but even more surprising was the spirit of capitulation that Gates seems to have brought to the table. While he hasn’t said that he’s withdrawing the proposal to close JFCOM, he told participants in Tuesday’s meeting that much of the command would need to be retained in its current location and that he would be willing to discuss moving other Department of Defense agencies into the area to make up for positions lost by any JFCOM reductions. And he has promised the Virginia delegation a part in a process that originally was shrouded in secrecy so great that elected officials were not warned ahead of time about the decision.

Officials have not publicly speculated about what might have caused Gates’ apparent change of heart. But one big change has taken place between the Secretary’s announcement and Tuesday’s meeting — an election in which a Republican tide swept across congressional districts all over the nation. That tide began rising on Nov. 2 in Virginia, a “swing state” instrumental to the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, where the Republican Party picked up three new seats.

Ah, the power of an election.