- Pentagon leaders have been reluctant to talk about readiness
- Congress has held closed hearings with Pentagon leadership
- Defense’s Mattis, Afghanistan watchdog sparred over secrecy
The Pentagon will be the beneficiary of a big cash infusion as lawmakers divvy up the spoils from a spring congressional funding accord. Yet more money hasn’t meant more transparency in how it’ll be spent, and lawmakers overseeing the defense budget have aided some of the secrecy.
Critics worry that open discussion of the defense budget—which makes up more than half of funds allocated each year in the appropriations process—may be waning. They cite hearings on the defense policy bill and Pentagon funding that were closed to the public, as well as the continued opacity of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, an accounting device created to track Iraq and Afghanistan war monies that has been increasingly relied on to pay the Pentagon’s day-to-day expenses.
“It is important that the public be able to assess how well its tax dollars are being used so government institutions can be held accountable,” Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email.
As part of a budget agreement, the Pentagon will see a boost of $165 billion this year and next, compared to what was projected under the Budget Control Act of 2011. The last time the Pentagon got such a big bump in spending was between 1981 and 1982, during the Reagan administration.
‘Aided and Abetted’
Defense Department leaders and their allies on Capitol Hill have said the bump will only help the department recover from flat funding in recent years and that there’s no more secrecy on spending than in the past.
But Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington-based spending watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, doesn’t buy that.
“This administration has been less transparent—aided and abetted by the House,” Ellis said. “They closed budget oversight hearings on the Pentagon. We’ve never seen that.”
Taxpayers for Common Sense led a coalition of organizations that raised alarm over the decision by the House Armed Services Committee to not hold its traditional budget hearings with the chiefs of the armed forces branches, and instead opt for closed-door roundtables with them.
While the Armed Services panel isn’t in charge of doling out money to the Pentagon, its defense policy bill plays a big role in deciding which programs will be funded. HASC did, however, hold open hearings with the services’ civilian leaders.
“It is extremely troubling to see this Committee backslide when it comes to making the operations of the legislative branch open and transparent to the people, particularly given the substantial amount of discretionary funding under the Committee’s jurisdiction,” the organizations wrote April 13. “All congressional proceedings should be conducted in accordance with our country’s highest principles of transparency and openness.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee, unlike the House committee, held its markup of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill largely behind closed doors, with the exception of the personnel subcommittee.
Though HASC had an open hearing with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee decided to hold a closed hearing with the two leaders. The appropriations committee’s defense subpanel held open hearings with the service chiefs and civilian leaders.
In the Senate, appropriators also had Mattis and Dunford in open session, and the Armed Services Committee also saw all of the top leaders and service chiefs in publicly open sessions.
“The Senate doing the decent, normal, minimally expected thing, doesn’t absolve House from trying to hide the budgetary ball from taxpayers,” Ellis said.
Continued overseas operations are another area where critics say the Pentagon is holding its cards too close to the vest.
The military has relied on war funding, through the Overseas Contingency Operations account, to continue its deployments and avoid some of the budget constraints, as spending from that account doesn’t count toward the annual overall defense spending cap.
“The subject of OCO spending is notoriously opaque,” Ellis said. “Whenever they provide information to Congress about OCO spending, the reports are either classified or made FOUO [for official use only] to further inhibit their disclosure.”
For instance, it’s been difficult to parse the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance accounts to distinguish between war funds and the regular department budget, he said.
The O&M accounts cover everything from operations, training, and mowing the lawns on bases. Efforts to pass bills to shine a light on restricting usage of OCO monies notoriously fail every year in Congress for lack of support.
Even numbers of troops in foreign countries and progress on the battlefield have become harder to come by.
U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, to name the top operations. But the public is unable to know exactly how many troops are in each because the Defense Manpower Data Center has scrapped public release of the data and will no longer publish those numbers, according to a notice on the website.
“What we have seen under Mattis is a clamping down on information about readiness and on-going military operations,” CSIS’s Harrison said. “The lack of publicly available information on readiness and on-going operations makes it difficult if not impossible to hold DoD accountable for how it is spending the taxpayers money and the progress being made (or not) in the nation’s wars.”
For America’s longest war, Afghanistan, the Defense Department decided to classify previously unclassified data about the mission. The Pentagon was in a tug of war with the top internal watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, over information from Afghanistan.
The Pentagon decided to classify information in SIGAR reports between Oct. 30, 2017, and Feb. 26, 2018, such as information on Afghan security forces’ performance and casualties.
“I would not be able to tell you in a public setting or the American people how their money is being spent,” Sopko told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last November. Mattis later told the House Armed Services Committee in February that restricting the assessment of Taliban or government control over Afghanistan from the January SIGAR report was a “mistake.”
The Pentagon says being open about its spending is a priority. Dana White, the chief spokeswoman for the department, said Pentagon leadership plans to keep the public informed as the department implements its new National Defense Strategy.
“You will see that as a rhythm with us,” she said at a Pentagon briefing May 31. “It’s a priority for the secretary to ensure that Congress and, most of all, the American people understand how we are spending their money.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon doesn’t appear to be more secretive than they were before.
But if Congress doesn’t mandate submission of information in a report, then lawmakers have to reach out and ask, he said in an interview.
A Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the use of closed hearings.
“Closed hearings allow members to discuss classified information that will help them make the best possible funding decisions,” the aide said. “Decisions on the remaining hearings have not yet been made.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org