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State Department Gets a Military Messager in Chief

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Navy Admiral John Kirby, the former spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will soon be named the State Department's man behind the podium for John Kerry, two administration officials confirmed to me today.

Kirby, a rear admiral who will retire from the military before taking over as the State Department’s lead briefer, beat out several other contenders who were interviewed by the White House to get the job, including acting spokeswoman Marie Harf. The job opened up when Jen Psaki moved over to the White House to be President Barack Obama’s new communications director. 

This is not the first time Kirby has beaten out Harf for a top job: she was also in contention to be Hagel’s spokesperson in late 2013 before Kirby was appointed.

Harf, a former CIA spokeswoman and staffer for the Obama presidential campaign, had come under criticism for her combative exchanges with reporters during her State Department briefings and her sometimes controversial remarks during TV appearances, such as when she said on MSNBC that "lack of opportunity for jobs" should be a main focus of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.

There were press reports in February that Harf’s gaffes had already excluded her from getting promoted, but administration officials told me that Harf was in the running until the end, but ultimately Kirby was determined to be a better choice. 

Kirby, who was commissioned as a Naval officer in 1986, also served as the Navy’s chief of information and the top public affairs officer for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has a reputation for working well with reporters and having substantive expertise on a range of foreign policy and national security issues. This comes as the department is trying to sell its Iran nuclear agreement that critics feel could harm U.S. security. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter asked Kirby to leave his Pentagon post when he took over the Pentagon earlier this year because Carter wants to put a civilian face on the Pentagon’s public persona. The Pentagon’s loss is the State Department’s gain.

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To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net