Last March, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson warned top officers and civilian officials against talking too openly with the press.

Last March, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson warned top officers and civilian officials against talking too openly with the press. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts/U.S. Navy

The Pentagon’s Secrecy Is Undermining Its Quest for a Bigger Budget

Last year, U.S. Navy and defense leaders warned their people to watch what they say. Lawmakers say that’s made it harder to argue for spending bumps on Capitol Hill.

If Pentagon leaders are seeking someone to blame for their budget woes, they need not look across the frozen Potomac to Capitol Hill, lawmakers say. Because as the military becomes less transparent, convincing Congress to fund a $700-billion defense budget gets increasingly difficult.

Last March, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson warned top officers and civilian officials against talking too openly with the press. Public communications should continue, he wrote in a memo, but “very often, less is more.”

That, and similar guidance from other parts of the Pentagon, have had “catastrophic” consequences, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., told attendees of the Surface Navy Association annual symposium Wednesday.

“I don’t mean to single out the Navy here, I understand there was similar guidance from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] across the services as well,” said Gallagher, a first-term Congressman and retired Marine who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. “But I cannot emphasize how catastrophic a mistake I think that is.”

“Despite the old adage that ‘Loose lips sink ships,’ nonexistent strategic communications can sink entire navies,” he added.

Richardson remains more concerned about the loose lips. He defended the policy in a tense exchange with a reporter at the conference the night before, saying it isn’t meant to make the Navy “stop talking; it's to be careful about what we talk about.”

If that means “we talk less about specific capabilities and concepts, I'm fine with that,” the Navy’s top officer said.

But Gallagher said that by throttling back the stream of information, the Navy and other services haven’t cut off adversaries — only the American public. Constituents who don’t hear about grounded jets and colliding ships can’t write letters, clog voicemails, and visit congressional offices. So lawmakers interested in funding a 355-ship navy — like Gallagher — don’t have the public support they need to back them up.

“If the bias is toward silence to prevent adversaries from finding out about unique capabilities or potential weaknesses, guess what — there will never be a public constituency for acquiring or mitigating that,” he said. “And oh, by the way, our adversaries probably have a decent idea of what we’re up to anyway.”

Bigger than the Navy

The lack of transparency isn’t limited to the Navy. Though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has at times encouraged top generals to talk with the press, he has also echoed the sentiments in the CNO’s memo. And despite Mattis’ penchant for informal, off-camera chats with reporters, the secretary rarely appears for on-camera briefings and has limited the number of reporters invited on trips overseas.

Richardson's memo has had an impact well beyond the Navy. Military officials from other services have cited it when dodging reporters’ questions. Defense executives have also been more hesitant to hold press briefings, particularly at trade shows.

Lawmakers say that has consequences. Defense hawks are trying to sell a $700-billion defense budget to a Congress that has ducked hard spending decisions  for the past seven years. It’s a difficult sell when they don’t have examples of specific problems to cite, Rep. Mac Thornberry told reporters Oct. 5 at the Heritage Foundation.

“My tension sometimes with Gen. Mattis is that he does not want to talk openly about our weaknesses because that’s telling the enemy where our vulnerabilities are,” said Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “And yet, I’m in the middle of trying to improve our weaknesses and if we don’t talk openly about them, at least to some extent, I’m afraid we will not do as much as we could to fix them. “

Related: Would Better Messaging Help the Military Boost Its Budget?

Such frustration has been building on Capitol Hill. In March, Thornberry told reporters that he understood the need for guarding classified information, but said the military’s justifications for a larger budget could seem abstract even to members of his own committee.

Meanwhile, Thornberry’s Senate counterpart, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., repeatedly tussled with the Pentagon over its lack of communicativeness. He threatened to, and in some cases actually did, hold up nominees over details about the four soldiers killed in Niger, the Afghanistan war plan, and Army recruiting practices.

On Wednesday, Thornberry echoed his remarks from last March.

“I admit it’s a fine balance,” he told reporters after a committee hearing. “But if we’re going to convince my colleagues who are not on this committee, as well as the American people, to fix these things, I think we do have to talk at least somewhat openly about what our problems are.”