Frank Carlucci: Former Pentagon chief who served as crisis manager to six US presidents

His reputation as a tamer of federal bureaucracies led to stints as secretary of defence, national security adviser and deputy CIA director

Bruce Nelan
Friday 15 June 2018 15:16 BST
The diplomat’s work took him all over the world. On deciding to leave Lisbon after three years he said: ‘I had become too much of an actor in the drama’
The diplomat’s work took him all over the world. On deciding to leave Lisbon after three years he said: ‘I had become too much of an actor in the drama’ (AFP/Getty)

Frank Charles Carlucci III was the soft-spoken but hard-driving crisis manager for six American presidents. His reputation as a tamer of federal bureaucracies led to stints as secretary of defence, national security adviser and deputy CIA director.

​Carlucci’s rise was linked with those of Caspar Weinberger and his Princeton wrestling teammate Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom were entrenched in Republican politics and who became defence secretaries. They and others in high office often called on Carlucci, a self-described damage-repair specialist, to sort out turmoil and scandal in fractious federal power centres.

As second in charge at the CIA in the late 1970s, he was widely credited with helping calm a spy agency in almost open revolt against its director Stansfield Turner. A few years later, as national security adviser, he helped restore the National Security Council’s probity after the Iran-Contra affair brought down its chief, John Poindexter, and the head of its military-political office, Oliver North.

In his various top Defence Department roles, Carlucci also was responsible for helping build up and then dramatically reduce the department’s budget, as times and White House policy warranted.

By his own admission, Carlucci was “not a great visionary” in the mould of Henry Kissinger. But he had a steely confidence that, along with impeccable connections, got jobs done and helped him advance.

Short and wiry – his father was once quoted as calling him “a tough little monkey” – he distinguished himself in 1960 as a Foreign Service officer in the strife-ridden Belgian Congo, where he was once stabbed in the back while helping rescue Americans from a mob.

Moving up the Washington hierarchy during the first Nixon administration of 1969 to 1973, he proved deft at forging comfortable compromises on thorny issues. As a top official of the US Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), he managed to keep the anti-poverty agency thriving despite withering attacks by Republicans alleging fraud and waste.

When then-California governor Ronald Reagan threatened to refuse the OEO grant money to fund a legal-services programme for the state’s rural poor, Carlucci worked out a plan in which the governor accepted the money in exchange for a federal investigation into the allegations. It was a manoeuvre that was said to have greatly impressed a key Reagan ally – Weinberger, who soon came to Washington and brought Carlucci up the ladder with him as an indispensable deputy.

In 1974, when Portuguese military officers overthrew the right-wing dictatorship in Lisbon, then-secretary of state Kissinger fired the ambassador and sent Carlucci over to prevent Portugal from becoming the first country in Western Europe to turn communist.

Kissinger was ready to isolate Portugal inside Nato and cut off US assistance programmes, but Carlucci didn't agree. He argued that the country could be saved for democracy because of its ties to the West and its strong Catholic Church.

“Whoever sold me Carlucci as a tough guy?” Kissinger was reported to have said.

To outmanoeuvre Kissinger was risky business. In a later oral history interview, he recalled telling the secretary of state that “his statements were pushing Portugal into the arms of the communists. I also had some discussions with the White House as well, because I believed I worked for the president, not just the secretary of state.”

Kissinger agreed to let Carlucci handle the problem his way. His position was vindicated when communists were defeated in Portuguese elections and their domination of the government ended. Carlucci played his part in this by designing US Agency for International Development programmes in health and housing and working closely with the democratic political parties and their leaders.

“It turned out the electoral process worked,” he said. After three years in Lisbon, he decided, it was time to go – “I had become too much of an actor in the drama.”

Frank Charles Carlucci III was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his father was an insurance agent, a year after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The younger Carlucci was only 5ft 7in but was known as a dedicated athlete. He joined Rumsfeld on the wrestling team at Princeton, where he graduated in 1952 with a degree in international relations.

After two years in the US navy, he spent a year in a two-year MBA programme at Harvard and also began an executive training programme at the Jantzen swimwear company before deciding that this, too, was not for him.

He had long been interested in foreign affairs, so in 1956 he joined the US Foreign Service. He was sent to Congo in 1960, just at the cusp of its independence from Belgium. That November, he helped save from mob bloodlust a carload of Americans whose vehicle had struck and killed a Congolese cyclist in the capital of Leopoldville.

Carlucci once said he remained with the driver “at least until the others could get away”. Only later on a bus home did he realise that he had knife wounds in his back.

His bravery in that episode and others in Congo’s rebellious provinces became the stuff of Foreign Service legend and cemented his friendships with Cyrille Adoula, who became premier of the Republic of the Congo, and with prime minister Patrice Lumumba.

He returned to Washington in 1962 and took over the Congo desk at the State Department. Adoula soon arrived on an official visit and, at a White House lunch in his honour, looked around and asked, “Where is Carlucci?” The Congo desk officer was unknown to President John F Kennedy, who turned to secretary of state Dean Rusk and asked, “Who’s Carlucci?”

The secretary didn’t know either, but Carlucci was soon tracked down and delivered to the table.

Passing through Washington in 1969 after working at the embassy in Brazil, Carlucci got together with Rumsfeld, who had just become head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and persuaded his former teammate to join him as deputy director for operations at the anti-poverty agency.

Over the next two years, Carlucci became the deputy to Weinberger, who led first the Office of Management and Budget and then the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Upon his return from Portugal in 1978, Carlucci accepted an assignment from President Jimmy Carter to serve as deputy CIA director. The head of the spy agency, Turner, had been expected to clean up shop after revelations at congressional hearings that the CIA was engaged in assassination plots, spying on Americans and other misdeeds.

Turner fired more than 200 experienced spies, some of them station chiefs in Eastern Europe, and was turning his resources and reliance to satellites. Carlucci took over the day-to-day operational control of the agency while Turner focused on coordinating the larger intelligence community. Carlucci’s willingness to use human operatives as well as satellites for intelligence gathering and covert action was credited with helping ease the tension.

His decision to work for a Democratic president was viewed as an act of betrayal by some hardline Republicans. But when Reagan, who was now president, tapped Weinberger to run the Pentagon in 1981, the new defence secretary insisted on having Carlucci as his number two. They went on to launch what was then the largest military buildup in US history – with a budget of $1.4 trillion over five years, which Carlucci directed.

At the time, he described “economies and efficiencies in defence” as “subsidiary issues”, given a growing Soviet threat. “We provide a service much like firemen and policemen,” he said of the Defence Department. “It’s wasteful when you don’t need it, but when you need it, every cent of it’s worth it.”

Carlucci left the Defence Department in 1982 because his personal bank account “ran out of money”, as he put it. He was wooed by the department stores giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, where Rumsfeld was on the board, and accepted the presidency of a new export services firm called Sears World Trade Inc, based in Washington. The job made him a wealthy man, but the company never turned a profit, and Sears folded it.

In 1986, he was lured back into government service amid scandal at the National Security Council, whose staff members had gone into the covert-action business. They were secretly selling arms and spare parts to embargoed Iran and, equally, secretly funnelling the profits to the Contra rebels fighting the government of Nicaragua. It was all illegal, and Poindexter and North were forced out.

In the search for a new national security adviser, Carlucci was the unanimous recommendation of Weinberger, secretary of state George P Shultz, CIA director William Casey and attorney general Edwin Meese III.

Assuming control at the NSC, Carlucci announced that he was going to get it back to its traditional role as “a staff arm” to coordinate policy formation, and not an action agency. During his year in the job, he fired 24 of the 59 professional staffers, eliminated North’s political-military section and appointed a full-time general counsel reporting directly to him.

At the NSC, Carlucci named as his deputy Colin Powell, then a lieutenant colonel, as his former top military assistant at the Pentagon. Powell succeeded him as national security adviser, beginning his own rise to the highest levels of Washington’s power structure.

Carlucci succeeded Weinberger as defence secretary in 1987 and over the next two years instituted painful budget cuts and base closings as the Cold War wound down and the country entered an economic slump. One hurdle he cleared was the noisy resignation of navy secretary James H Webb Jr, who accused him of bad faith and betraying an administration goal of building a 600-ship navy.

After retiring from public service in 1989, Carlucci joined the Carlyle Group and led the relatively new private-equity firm into defence industry investments that reaped sizeable profits. He later became chairman and, in 2003, chairman emeritus. The group now manages about $176bn (£131bn) in assets for about 1,500 investors.

Carlucci’s first marriage, to Jean Anthony, ended in divorce. In 1976, he married Marcia McMillan Myers. In addition to his wife, of McLean, Virginia, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Frank Carlucci IV of McLean and Karen Romano of Lewes, Delaware; a daughter from his second marriage, Kristin Weed of Houston; a sister, Joan Kleinrock of Rockville, Maryland; and six grandchildren.

If not a colourful public figure, Carlucci was a widely acknowledged master of good judgement and common sense in all manner of bureaucratic entanglements.

“Frank is an operator,” one government executive who observed Carlucci for decades once told The Washington Post. “He’s a first-class manager and doer. You can get oodles of brains to come to this town, who have all kinds of fancy, brilliant concepts, but they can’t get the damn thing done. The problem is getting it to happen. Frank makes it happen.”

Frank Carlucci, American politician, born 18 October 1930, died 3 June 2018

© The Washington Post

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