Pentagon Blasts Lawmakers’ Critique Of COVID-19 Response

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus in Washington.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus in Washington.

Democratic lawmakers accused SecDef of leading a “disjointed and slow” response to the pandemic.

A letter from 10 Senate Democrats accusing the Defense Department of responding too slowly to the coronavirus pandemic “cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions that do not reflect reality,” top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a Tuesday statement blasting the lawmakers’ letter. 

“While we are not above criticism, this letter does not even remotely accurately reflect our record of action against the Coronavirus and the great lengths we have gone to protect our people,” Hoffman said in a lengthy statement. 

The lawmakers’ eight-page letter, sent Monday, accused Defense Secretary Mark Esper of leading a “disjointed and slow” Pentagon response to the coronavirus crisis that has passed the buck to lower-level commanders, confused U.S. troops and their families, and put their health second to the military’s ability to fight.  

In particular, the lawmakers zeroed in on Esper’s decision to push decision-making on COVID-19 mitigation efforts down to individual commanders at bases and on ships worldwide, whom Pentagon leadership believed were best positioned to decide what measures were necessary to protect service members under their authority. That policy, the lawmakers said, left commanders “to make decisions they should never have to make.”

Hoffman in his response rejected that assessment, defending the policy and arguing that Esper “made a clear, unambiguous decision to provide constant guidance to senior civilian and military leaders on how to confront the crisis.”

“The Secretary of Defense is responsible for nearly three million people at thousands of locations and 400 bases, in 150 countries and every US state doing literally thousands of incredibly different jobs. Therefore, the military practice is to provide guidance and allow commanders to interpret that guidance in accordance with their missions.  

“This has been necessary as the outbreak has affected different geographies differently – Daegu is not Minot – and diverse missions have diverse levels of flexibility – a nuclear sub, a bomber cockpit and an office building in a major city are all distinct DoD environments.”

Hoffman also pointed to numerous revisions to department-wide guidance on health protection measures, the first of which was issued on Jan. 30. “Since then, we have issued updated guidance nine times to the entire department — which have been provided to the inquiring members previously — that lay out direction for our commanders around the world,” Hoffman said. 

The Pentagon’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been under particular scrutiny partly due to the controversy surrounding the outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier in the Pacific whose captain was fired after a letter warning Navy leaders that his crew was in danger appeared in the press. Additionally, service members and lower-echelon commanders have privately raised fears that the Defense Department wasn’t doing enough to protect them from the spread of the virus. 

“We look forward to continuing to discuss the lessons learned from this outbreak and our path forward with our highly informed and engaged oversight committees,” Hoffman concluded. 

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