At a time of rampant executive branch corruption and large increases in defense spending, Americans are rightly concerned about the need for governmental transparency. People deserve to know how their money is being used, and what life-or-death decisions the Pentagon bureaucracy is making in their names. As President Trump asks for more defense dollars and relies more than ever on the military to conduct the country’s business, his administration should be taking commensurate steps to increase openness and strengthen accountability to the public.
Instead, the Defense Department under this administration has been doing the exact opposite. Its current leaders declared war on transparency in their earliest days on the job. On issue after issue, they have made conspicuous decisions to roll back transparency and public accountability precisely when we need it most.
The message from the top has been to withhold information from Congress, the public, and the press, even as President Trump has simultaneously taken inappropriate steps to politicize the military. Certainly, we must always be mindful of the need to protect sensitive national security information, and we have long invested in crucial efforts—such as the classification system—in order to safeguard it. But the Trump administration’s actions have gone far beyond the proper balance, in ways that do not serve the public interest.
To take just a few examples, the administration has regularly sought to prevent DoD officials from testifying before Congress on major issues—such as the annual defense budget request—when hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. It aggressively curtailed once-standard interactions between DoD leadership and the press, only to partially reinstate them after a prolonged outcry. Instead of providing our servicemembers, the American public, and Congress with candid assessments of military readiness challenges and transparency about DoD’s plans to address them, DoD leaders have issued edicts chilling such discussions. DoD recently classified the inspection grades for the safety, security, and control of nuclear weapons. It also stopped making public a basic schedule of planned missile defense tests, a decision I helped overturn by passing a law requiring transparency as part of this year’s defense bill. It attempted to scrub use of the term “climate change” despite Congressional intent. And the Navy recently stopped publicly posting its accident reports, at a time when pilot safety is a major concern for our servicemembers and for Congress.
These efforts to wrap the Pentagon in a blanket of unaccountability also extend to technical, yet important issues that reduce our ability to detect and curtail defense waste. For example, I am greatly concerned about the administration’s abuse of processes designed to keep the public informed about the weapons programs that taxpayers are being asked to fund. Starting in 2017, once routine and publicly available cost, schedule, and performance reports on multibillion-dollar weapons programs started to be labeled “For Official Use Only”—a designation that prevents their public release—often because a single sentence was deemed “sensitive” by a low-level bureaucrat. Not coincidentally, the reports so labeled were usually ones that revealed a system didn’t work like it was supposed to, or that somebody in the Pentagon might be embarrassed by public knowledge of an error. DoD is also suppressing the publication of some Government Accountability Office reports on Pentagon waste simply because they are negative or embarrassing.
Or take the Defense Department’s operational testing office. Congress created it during the 1980s to counteract the excesses that emerged during the Reagan Administration’s defense spending escalation, including numerous instances of taxpayer waste on weapon systems that didn’t work and might pose a danger to their operators. It is one of Congress’s main tools for identifying defense waste. Each year, it publishes a comprehensive report on the effectiveness of every system the Pentagon is developing, and every year since the 1980s, those reports have been available to the public. They have been essential to Congress’s and the public’s ability to understand and work to fix potential problems with multibillion-dollar systems, from the F-35 fighter jet to new aircraft carriers to missile defense. Now, that may no longer be the case. For the upcoming annual report, DoD is planning to only provide a complete report to Congress as a classified document, even if most of the details about why a system isn’t working have not been considered classified in the past and have been safely released to the public for decades.
These attempts to increase secrecy are unacceptable, and they do not enhance national security. In many of these cases, President Trump’s Pentagon leadership is seeking to roll back transparency norms that have been in effect and functioning well since the mid-twentieth century.
We have safeguards in place to balance genuine national security concerns with the need for public disclosure, and we are working hard to come up with appropriate measures to counter new espionage and analysis efforts conducted by our adversaries. But candid discussion with Congress about military readiness, the defense budget, or deployments around the world; the release of general information about the effectiveness of weapons systems that taxpayers are funding; and many other basic transparency practices have not harmed national security for all the years that they have been the norm. The efforts to further restrict this information are unjustified, and if anything, the recent policies we have seen call for an increase in transparency.
Remedying this imbalance by bringing back oversight and accountability should be one of Congress’s major defense priorities.