Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ sweeping gag order prohibiting senior military officers from discussing the 2010 defense budget is raising fears of politicizing the Pentagon.
Six Republican House members wrote to Gates on May 5, saying his requirement that generals, admirals and senior civilians sign a non-disclosure agreement seems so broad the signers may withhold candid testimony on Capitol Hill.
The letter comes amid a disclosure of another apparent politicization of the Pentagon. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, (D-Mi), sent a letter to Gates on February 2 asking that the Defense Department Inspector General re-do a January report that cleared the Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon of any wrongdoing in providing briefings some 70 retired military TV analysts. Gates relayed the letter to the acting inspector general, and subsequently the IG report was withdrawn.
The gag-order letter, spearheaded by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), reveals a far-reaching agreement that could affect future testimony, not just 2010 budget deliberations inside the Pentagon. Gates announced his 2010 decisions on April 6, scaling back some of former president George W. Bush’s key defense policies.
The gag-order covers information “predecisional or otherwise, concerning the administration’s deliberation of the nature and amounts of the president’s budget for fiscal 2010, and any supplemental budget request submitted during the current fiscal year.” Military sources saying it is the first time — at least in recent memory — they recall a defense secretary requiring the Joint Chiefs, service secretaries and senior political appointees to sign a no-talk pledge. Usually, such requirements are done orally via the secretary office, and often ignored.
To Forbes, a House Armed Services member, and five other congressmen, the limits, in effect, censor future testimony.
“Can I expect a candid answer from a senior military official when I ask them about the process used to establish priorities, either now or after the president’s detailed budget is released to the public?” the six Republicans asked Gates. “Members of Congress deserve candid answers from senior military officers that are not suppressed or censored — either directly, or implicitly via culture of regulations that muzzle their independent professional judgment.”
Noting Congress’ constitutional duty to fund the military, the letter adds, “I am concerned that these restrictions on the deliberation of these tradeoffs are reflected in the president’s budget this year and future years severely and unnecessarily limits the Congress in these constitutional duties.”
The gag-order has sent a chill through the Pentagon. Some bureaucrats who normally talk to reporters on background, not attribution, responded to questions in recent weeks by saying they had been ordered not to talk.
Gates imposed the order to prevent leaks to the press and Congress, as he, his staff and military leaders negotiated major changes in defense policy, such as: cutting missile defense ground-based interceptors; freezing the F-22 fighter buy at 187; drastically scaling back the Army’s battlefield Future Combat System; and retiring 250 Air Force fighters in one year alone.
The Pentagon denies the non-disclosure edict has chilled, or politicized, the building.
“Now that the budget is out, they can talk about anything that’s other than security classification or predecisional information,” said Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s top budget officer.
The term “predecisional” is what rankles some in Congress. At hearings, military witnesses may give short, or incomplete answers, for fear of disclosing a pending decisions and risking Gates’ anger.
“Secretary Gates’ intention was to prevent leaks so that he could do this holistic rollout that you saw him do on April 6,” Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, a budget director for the Joint Chiefs, told reporters. “He really wanted to make sure that he had the ability to put the whole story out before it started getting picked apart because of a specific piece of information leaking.”
A chilling effect inside the building?
The service chiefs were part of all these discussions, and none of them are shrinking violets,” he said. “They were not intimidated at all.”
Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, told HUMAN EVENTS that the Gates’ goal was not to silence debate but to enhance it by stopping piecemeal information from becoming public, thus influencing the internal debate.
“This budget was gong to be one greater than the sum of its parts,” he said. “It was important he be able to solicit input from all senior leaders …. their opinions, their unvarnished thoughts on this.”
“He was able to bring forward a coherent budget that presented a presented a coherent strategy and that was what we were trying to achieve,” he said.
The non-disclosure agreement reads in part, “I recognize that a significant factor in the successful and proper preparation and completion of the President’s budget is the strict confidentiality that must be observed by all government participants in the planning, programming, and budgeting process, and that a failure to comply with these confidentiality requirements may compromise the administration’s ability to formulate and submit its budget.”
New York Times-Driven Do-Over of IG Report?
Then there is the case of Senate Armed Services Chairman Levin, a committed foe of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Levin pushed the Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Rumsfeld Pentagon practice of briefing some 70 retired military analysts who offer opinion/assessments on TV, radio and in print.
His request followed a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times that accused the analysts of winning contracts and other improprieties through the contacts made as a result of the Pentagon outreach program.
Rumsfeld’s people denied the charge. One referred to the Times‘ stories as fiction. In January, the IG come out with a report that exonerated Rumsfeld’s men and apparently the military analysts as well. It said it found no evidence that any analysts got contracts for any companies they represented. It also found the program complied with existing laws and regulations.
Levin, who as chairman will have a big say in naming the next IG, was unhappy.
In February, he went directly to Gates. He wrote a letter, first disclosed in The Washington Times, expressing displeasure at the findings. He urged Gates to have the IG office, now run by an acting director, review the report and open up a whole new area of inquiry: the analysts’ personal finances.
“While the report finds insufficient evidence to determine that any contractor received a competitive advantage as a result of its ties to retired military analysts, the report fails to assess whether the retired military analysts themselves obtained financial benefits from contractors as a result of their favorable access to DoD information and officials,” Levin wrote. “I would appreciate if you would task the inspector general to conduct an additional review and analysis to address these issues.”
Gates complied, telling Levin in a March 3 letter, “I have forwarded your concerns to the acting inspector general and asked that he conduct the additional review and analysis that you requested.”
Earlier this month, the IG took the extraordinary step of withdrawing the entire report, raising the question of whether Levin and Gates were exercising improper control of the Inspector General, established by law to be entirely independent of political manipulation.
The IG’s own written standards contain this admonition:
“The Inspector General and OIG staff must be free both in fact and appearance from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence.. External impairments to independence occur when the OIG staff is deterred from acting objectively and exercising professional skepticism by pressures, actual or perceived, from management and employees of the reviewed entity or oversight organizations.”
“Presumably that includes sitting U.S. senators,” an aide to former Secretary Rumsfeld told HUMAN EVENTS.
Taken separately, the gag order and the IG report do-over are troubling at least. Together, they may signal an unprecedented politicization of the Pentagon including the professional military leadership and the independent-by-law inspector general.