Walking around the Joint Chiefs of Staff hallways in the Pentagon, one often hears of a mystical and powerful force known simply as “the CAG.”
Ever heard of them? Know who they are? What they do? How much power they wield? Probably not, but you should.
The “Chairman’s Action Group” is a team of 18 little-known but highly influential advisors — though they prefer not to be called that — working directly for Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Col. Troy Thomas, special assistant to the chairman and director of the CAG, sat with the E-Ring on Friday for a rare on-the-record interview to help explain.
“We advance his intent, in terms of his narrative, his engagements, and his ideas,” Thomas said. Translating from militarese to English, mostly the CAG plans all of the chairman’s public engagements and messaging, advising on what he should say, where he should say it, to whom and how, in addition to organizing his travel. Thomas travels wherever Dempsey goes.
“I don’t think of myself as an advisor. But we do try to help him learn; he’s given us that charter. This chairman, you know, he really values divergent thinking, intellectual curiosity,” Thomas said.
It has become common — almost expected — that four-star general officers have some type of personal, on-call, at-the-ready advisory group of middle-grade officers, serving like a body-man tending to the senior officer’s special needs. Service chiefs and combatant commanders have their own versions of CAGs, and the groups often get together. What each group does, exactly, depends as much on the personality of the officer as the makeup of the group.
“No two groups are exactly alike,” Thomas said. The CAG in its current format dates back to Gen. Peter Pace’s term as chairman, according to several sources, but has changed over time, in size, influence, and purpose.
According to Thomas, Dempsey says the purpose of his CAG is “to help me learn.” But as Thomas describes it, that function ranks third behind crafting the chairman’s message and putting him out in public. Dempsey’s speechwriters — yes, they exist — are part of that team working on the narratives. Another team, Thomas said, has the job of coming up with Dempsey’s “engagement strategy” in the U.S. and abroad, planning Dempsey’s days for best impact, efficiency, and purpose based on what Dempsey’s wants out of each trip.
A third team is the one giving Dempsey ideas, a bit like Dempsey’s personal study group. They read books, think tank reports, or take assignments from the chairman and pass information up to him as they see fit.
What the CAG is not, Thomas argued, is a team of advisors whispering into the chairman’s ear about what his position should be on Turkey-Syria border violence, or Libya, or the budget. That remains the job of the Joint Staff’s numbered directorates, run by three-star generals with deputies and staffs of their own. CAG members are nominated by the services and go through rounds of interviews and writing samples before the chairman handpicks who he wants. They consist of ranks from O-4 to O-6 from all of the services, and one civilian.
Thomas said, trying to make a distinction, the CAG tries to actively consume the tidal wave of books, reports, and news coming at Dempsey each day, either when asked or unsolicited, almost like a special projects unit.
“Where we’re different, I think, from the staff is the staff is also engaged in helping him learn, but they’re really sort of experts, and they’re really experts in their area. We try to be helpful by making sure he’s exposed to counterarguments, making sure he’s exposed to innovative ideas, making sure — looking for connections and linkages among problem sets and solutions that other people aren’t seeking, trying to anticipate unintended consequences.”
It’s an ongoing dialogue, he said, of Dempsey asking the CAG to look into an idea someone mentioned to him, or check out a book he’s heard about. “Most of the time I’m having trouble keeping pace with him because he is a voracious reader,” Thomas said.
But can a staff of midgrade officers really say “no” to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
“He’s challenged the entire staff to think creatively, to be curious, to engage in divergent thinking, but mostly they do it in their area,” Thomas said. “I think with Gen. Dempsey, his style is that everyone feels like they’re free to engage in debate and offer their perspective, and if that meant suggesting to the chairman that there was another way to look at it than the way that he’s looking at a problem, he would expect you to that. And if you didn’t, you’re probably not serving him in a way he needs you to serve him.”
Perhaps the biggest change Dempsey made to build his CAG was moving the speechwriters from under Public Affairs to be in the CAG. It’s a product of Dempsey’s background, in a way. He did not come into office with much of an entourage of confidants nor a personal spokesman, like Mullen did with Rear Adm. John Kirby. Mullen and Kirby had years together in his previous jobs, so by the time he was chairman, Kirby managed Mullen’s messaging. By the time Mullen retired, it seemed Kirby knew what Mullen thought before Mullen did.
That dynamic is gone, under Dempsey.
“Where Public Affairs will sort of manage and shape the event, we will help the chairman develop the content, based on his guidance,” Thomas said.
Col. Dave Lapan, Dempsey’s spokesman, said that for the recent Landon Lecture in Kansas, a major policy speech, the CAG worked on framing Dempsey’s remarks while the Public Affairs staff worked on getting local press to attend and other logistics.
Thomas said the CAG planned Dempsey’s recent trip to the Pacific northwest because all of the services have elements there for him to visit, including the Coast Guard.
“We met with Microsoft to talk about cybersecurity. We talked, we went to meet with Boeing to talk about innovation in business models and economic competition in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said, all so he can not only engage with the public but learn.
Missing from that trip: the press. Dempsey has surrounded himself with a brain trust specifically to help craft his message and engagements, not to mention the whole of the Joint Staff. But Dempsey usually avoids the press, or only meets with local press.
Thomas was uncomfortable answering why that is, but Lapan said reporters have not been invited to follow Dempsey for reasons varying from logistics to the size of Dempsey’s plane or hotel space. Dempsey’s starting point for the Northwest trip was Texas, as he visited his grandchildren, instead of Andrews, for example.
Thomas argued that in Dempsey’s first year he had over 200 public engagements, but conceded that total includes speeches. When asked if the CAG has advised Dempsey to do more media engagements, Thomas said, “The CAG is not in the business of advising him on media engagement. We leave that to the public affairs officer.”
“We’re trying to sort of implement [Dempsey’s] idea. So he and I will engage in a conversation about what he might want to talk about in a particular forum,” he said. “In the course of that conversation, there’ll be a discussion with Colonel Lapan about media involvement in that particular occasion.”
“I might offer whether or not I think the message might resonate with a larger audience, but mostly, exactly how the media might get involved in that message I leave to [Lapan],” he said.
For Dempsey’s trips to Southeast Asia and Korea, Dempsey took no reporters. Lapan said that decision was made because Dempsey’s staff felt the Pentagon press corps already was traveling in full with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the same locations for the same events.
This week, Dempsey announced he wants to expand his travel to visit Russia, China, and India.
Look for Thomas at his side. Just don’t call him an advisor.