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Biden taps retired general Lloyd Austin as defense secretary, the first Black man to hold the role

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President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin to be his first defense secretary, Mr. Biden wrote in an essay in The Atlantic on Tuesday. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin — the former head of U.S. Central Command and military forces in Iraq — would be the first Black man to lead the Pentagon.

"He is a true and tested soldier and leader," Mr. Biden wrote, recalling their interactions in Iraq when Austin commanded U.S. troops in the country. "I've spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I've sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot. He rose through the Army's ranks during his distinguished and trailblazing career."

The president-elect added that Austin "shares my profound belief that the United States is strongest when we lead not only with the example of our power, but with the power of our example." Mr. Biden's office said the president-elect will formally introduce Austin at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.

Austin, 67, retired as a four-star Army general in 2016 and would be the second former uniformed military commander to head the Defense Department in the last four years. Like former Marine General James Mattis, who served as President Trump's first Pentagon chief, Austin would require a special waiver passed by Congress in order to exempt him from a federal law requiring military officers to wait seven years before serving as defense secretary. Several Democratic senators expressed reservations about granting such a waiver when asked on Tuesday.

Multiple sources confirmed the selection to CBS News on Monday before Mr. Biden's essay. Mr. Biden told reporters on Monday in Delaware that he planned to formally announce his choice to lead the Defense Department later in the week.

Austin's emergence as a candidate for the job came amid growing calls from national civil rights organizations and Democratic Asian, Black and Latino caucuses to ensure that Mr. Biden nominated minorities and women to senior Cabinet posts.

Lloyd J. Austin
In this September 16, 2015, photo, U.S. Central Command Commander General Lloyd Austin III, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Late Monday, Democratic Representative Steven Horsford of Nevada, who is serving as a liaison between the Biden transition team and the Congressional Black Caucus, said his caucus "is pleased with President-elect Biden's selection of this historic nominee. Once confirmed, former General Lloyd Austin will be the first African American to lead the Department of Defense and provide critical leadership to the men and women who serve our country and protect our freedom."

Other candidates considered for the role included Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary for defense policy touted by many Democrats as a qualified pick who would have been another potential history-maker as the first woman to lead the Pentagon, and Jeh Johnson, the former homeland security secretary who previously served as the Defense Department's general counsel.

Austin was the top U.S. commanding general on the ground in Iraq during the major Obama-era troop drawdown, and Mr. Biden met with Austin when he visited Iraq in 2011. Austin oversaw the removal of U.S. forces and equipment from Iraq at the end of that year — a massive logistical feat that Biden allies are likely to play up in the coming weeks as the Defense Department prepares to help distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. He was also involved in the national security briefings that Mr. Biden received from experts outside government when he was not yet receiving the President's Daily Brief.

But Austin faces a couple of hurdles, including his position in recent years as a member of the board of directors of defense contractor Raytheon. And some elements of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are likely to be unhappy about yet another former uniformed commander — and one with ties to a defense contractor — serving as the civilian leader of the military.

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