House Orders Pentagon to Provide Figures

July 2nd, 2020 - by Aaron Mehta / Defense News

House Bill Would Force DoD to List Deployed Numbers Around the World

Aaron Mehta / Defense News

WASHINGTON (July 1, 2020) — Unless Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets a legal requirement to explain where troops are deployed around the world, he’ll lose a quarter of his personal travel budget, according to a plan passed by the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.

During the panel’s markup of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the committee approved an amendment to fence off “25% of travel funds for the Office of the Secretary of Defense” until the Pentagon complies with a transparency requirement in the 2019 defense policy bill.

Under that law, the department must make a quarterly public report on the total numbers of military personnel deployed around the globe, both top-line totals and on a country-by-country basis. While the 2019 language does have some special cases that can receive waivers, the secretary is supposed to ask permission from Congress.

Put simply: members of Congress appear to feel Esper is not living up to his requirements under the law to explain where troops are deployed and are willing to take away some of his personal travel budget in order to prod him on the issue.

The amendment was introduced by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a veteran who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The FY19 language came at a time that then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had implemented a crackdown on information sharing in the Pentagon, with what was once routine information to be shared with the public became opaque over concerns of operational security. One major issue during Mattis’ tenure was getting information about what forces were being deployed where, with force numbers in Syria and Afghanistan particularly tough to nail down.

It’s a policy that has continued, first under acting secretary Pat Shanahan and now Esper, who in January told reporters, “General Mattis had a policy: We just don’t talk specific troop numbers, where we have, wherever they are. So, I follow that.”

Joe Gould and David B. Larter in Washington contributed to this report.

US Air Force Orders Freeze on Public Outreach

Valerie Insinna, David B. Larter, and  Aaron Mehta / Defense News

WASHINGTON (March 12, 2018) — The US Air Force is slashing access to media embeds, base visits and interviews as it seeks to put the entire public affairs apparatus through retraining — a move it says is necessary for operational security, but one which could lead to a broader freeze in how the service interacts with the public.

According to March 1 guidance obtained by Defense News, public affairs officials and commanders down to the wing level must go through new training on how to avoid divulging sensitive information before being allowed to interact with the press.

The effort, which represents the third major Defense Department entity to push out guidance restricting public communication over the past 18 months, creates a massive information bureaucracy in which even the most benign human-interest stories must be cleared at the four-star command level.

Before settling on retraining its public affairs corps and commanders, the service considered an even more drastic step: shutting down all engagement with the press for a 120-day period, a source with knowledge of the discussions said.

Instead, the service settled on the retraining plan, a temporary move which Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, director of public affairs, said could be completed “in the coming weeks.” 

“In today’s challenging information environment marked by great power competition, we will continue to be as transparent with the American public as possible while protecting sensitive information on our operations and capabilities,” Thomas told Defense News. “We owe both to the public, and it is vitally important for the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf and with their tax dollars.”

But two former Air Force secretaries and an influential congressman all raise the same concern: that intentionally or not, this will send a message that engaging with the public simply isn’t worth the risk.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., told Defense News the memo fits into a trend of recent moves inside the Department of Defense toward less transparency, which could ultimately undermine the DoD’s efforts to address long-standing problems. Gallagher serves on the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, which oversees several key Air Force programs like the B-21 bomber.

 “I fully support the National Defense Strategy’s focus on great-power competition,” Gallagher told Defense News, “but I think the department has it backwards. It is precisely because of the scale of the challenges before us that transparency is more important than ever. I worry that by failing to discuss problems, we will only ensure there is no public pressure to fix them.”

Shrinking Air Force Access

The renewed focus on operational security stems from the Trump administration’s recently released National Defense Strategy, according to the Air Force guidance. That document, which was marked as “for official use only,” was distributed to public affairs officials following a February 2018 memo on operational security signed by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein.

“As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries which could erode military advantage,” the March 2018 guidance read. “We must now adapt to the reemergence of great power competition and the reality that our adversaries are learning from what we say in public.”

Until wing-level spokesmen have been certified by their corresponding major command, responses to reporter queries that potentially could include details about “operations, training or exercises, readiness or other issues which may reveal operational information to potential adversaries” are subject to approval by the Air Force’s public affairs headquarters at the Pentagon, known as Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, or SAF/PA. Exceptions can be made for human interest stories, community engagement pieces or other lighter, fluffier news, which can be approved by major command public officials.

Read the full memo here.

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