Congressmen Criticize Pentagon 'Wall' of Silence

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other senior leaders reject Rep. Duncan Hunter’s assertion that there’s an information barrier between Capitol Hill and DOD. By Kevin Baron

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other senior Pentagon leaders rejected a sharp allegation made by Republican members of Congress on Thursday that the Defense Department has erected a communications “wall” between it and the legislative branch.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., appearing at the Defense One Summit in Washington, claimed Pentagon leaders have refused requests by members of Congress for greater clarity on global threats, more issue briefings and general engagement with the Defense Department.

“I think it’s frankly an arrogance on the part of DOD and the part of military leadership, and not wanting to work with Congress,” Hunter said. The situation, he said, stems from the “strong executive branch” that developed in the post-9/11 era years and the actions of Defense secretaries who have served since.

“I think that there’s part of a wall that’s been put up between Congress and DOD,” Hunter said. “That wall exists today and is exacerbated by the current administration and just the political fighting that is going on.”

Hunter said the House Armed Services Committee had resorted to forming its own outside panels of experts because the Pentagon has not adequately briefed lawmakers. “What we need in Congress is that trust and honesty that has been lacking from the military leadership,” Hunter said, “where they come to us.”

Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s chief budget official, rejected the congressmen’s assertions in an appearance later on the same stage.

“I don’t remember at least myself nor other senior officials ever turning down requested meetings with members of Congress,” he said. “We certainly testify frequently.” Hale said the problem may be that DOD just doesn’t have the specific information members seek, or “frankly, they don’t like the answers they’re hearing.”

Hunter argued that the Pentagon was hiding its threat analysis, preventing Congress from overseeing national security strategy and preparing a budget to match it.  

The analysis “has been done, but it’s been kept from Congress and it’s been kept from the media,” he said. “The Defense Department doesn’t even know what it’s spending.” Sequestration, he said, is only exacerbating an existing problem.

Under such circumstances, “we kind of have the head-butting we’ve been seeing lately, and [we’re] unable to get to a real strategy that is clearly defined, where we know where we stand in the world and we know what we’re willing to put money into and what we’re not going to put money into.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said that as wars overseas wind down, when Congress doesn’t give the military its full budget requests, DOD is uncooperative. “In some cases, you find …  that they’re not overly forthcoming when you try to ask questions, and I think that’s a relationship that needs to change.”

Hagel, appearing later at the event, said his time in Congress left him fully aware of lawmakers’ role in national security decisions.

“I have as much respect for … the Congress as I do for any institution certainly in this country,” said Hagel. “They -- constitutionally, they are partners. They have to be partners, for no other reason than they control the money.”

“I can't unilaterally -- the president can't unilaterally just make decisions on what we're going to do without authorization from Congress, without the appropriations from Congress,” Hagel added. “Plus, you want the input from Congress. They are closest to the people. They represent this republic.”