Dan Lamothe, a national security writer at The Washington Post, covered Ash Carter’s tenure as defense secretary.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrives at the presidential palace in Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in 2015. In his book, he recalls an instance when President Barack Obama dressed down Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai: “Obama’s language on that occasion was scathing, caustic, and richly deserved.” (AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst)

Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter was in a meeting at the White House when a National Security Council staff member shoved a surprise his way. Amid debate over the future of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the staffer handed out a proposed timetable that would force Carter to make a decision on the transfer of a detainee within a finite number of days.

“This tactic of springing a document on people without warning or vetting — known as ‘table dropping’ — had always been offensive to me,” Carter writes in his memoir of his time at the Pentagon. “It violates all the rules of good process and fair treatment. I picked up the paper, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at the White House staffer who had given it to me, saying, ‘Don’t table-drop s---.’ ”

The anecdote — reported previously in less colorful terms — is one of several revealing stories that Carter includes in his book, “Inside the Five-Sided Box: Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon.”


Carter, now director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, said he wrote the book as a “user’s guide” for understanding the Defense Department. Carter also airs his frustrations about Congress and the media, praises some of the senior officials who worked with him, and explains the background of some of the most significant decisions he made.

Carter became President Barack Obama’s fourth and final defense secretary in February 2015, stepping in at a time that included much of the war against the Islamic State, continued turmoil in Afghanistan as the president attempted to withdraw U.S. forces, and Carter’s historic decision to open all jobs in the military to any women who could meet the requirements.

After leaving their jobs, Carter’s predecessors all aired frustrations over being micromanaged by the Obama National Security Council staff. Carter addresses the issue with nuance, writing that while “staff munchkins” and “ideologues” at the White House sometimes caused problems, he took steps to avoid being micromanaged.

While former national security adviser Tom Donilon viewed the Pentagon “as a kind of dark star across the Potomac that needed to be reined in,” Carter writes, Donilon’s successor, Susan Rice, “took a more congenial approach” that included “having the right conversations” with the Pentagon chief. Nonetheless, meetings that Rice ran, Carter writes, had “serious problems from my point of view,” as people with “mixed levels of knowledge and experience” suggested ideas in a practice that “I began to refer to as ‘playing with little tin soldiers.’ ”

Through a spokeswoman, Rice declined to comment.

Carter can seem disingenuous at times. At one point, he writes that there have been cutbacks to media coverage of major war zones, while leaving out that the Defense Department under his watch rarely allowed journalists to embed with U.S. troops during the campaign against the Islamic State, citing logistical challenges and diplomatic sensitivities. He also writes that the media was “eager to play gotcha” when it questioned why the Obama administration avoided acknowledging that U.S. troops faced combat in the Islamic State campaign.

After reading the book, I asked Carter about those comments, and he backpedaled a bit. He said he didn’t think “the press was being unfair, in retrospect.” Journalists were just “pointing out a discrepancy that shouldn’t have been,” he said, when they reported on administration officials who did not acknowledge that some Americans engaged in combat along with Iraqi and Syrian troops, who made up the bulk of the ground forces. “I don’t know if it does any good at this point,” Carter said. “But you were seeing something that I wasn’t quite seeing, which was that there was reluctance at the White House to talk about troops in combat. I didn’t think that was right, and I didn’t want to do that.”

In the book, Carter provides some fresh details on his decision to allow women to take up all roles in the military. He writes that he and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that Dunford would not appear alongside Carter when he announced the decision, because Dunford had recommended while serving as commandant of the Marine Corps to keep some jobs closed to women. “If the press was going to criticize the decision, I wanted them to criticize me, no one else — and I particularly did not want Joe to be caught in the middle,” writes Carter, who lauds Dunford as one of the finest leaders he has ever known.

Of Obama, Carter writes that his “strengths greatly outweigh his weaknesses,” and that he believed the president was willing to hear him out and occasionally change his mind. While Carter thought Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan on a planned timetable was unwise, he eventually recommended to the president in 2015 that he keep some troops deployed there, and Obama did so.

Carter recalls the forcefulness with which Obama spoke to Hamid Karzai. The mercurial Afghan president had regularly referred to U.S. troops as invaders, even as they propped up his regime. “I had to keep my composure in his presence, but President Obama did not,” Carter wrote. “He once cleared the Situation Room during a National Security Council meeting attended by Karzai so that he could tell the Afghan president exactly what he thought of him. Obama’s language on that occasion was scathing, caustic, and richly deserved.”

I asked Carter about that incident, and he said he was not in the room, but Obama told him about it later.

“I think he was where I was: extremely angry and frustrated,” Carter said. “I was glad the president told me that, and I admired that he did it.”

Inside the Five-Sided Box
Lessons From a Lifetime of Leadership in the Pentagon

By Ash Carter

466 pp. $30