Flashes of Accountability

Rep. Walter Jones Press Conference
(Photo: Rep. Walter Jones / Instagram)

National security oversight is often anemic at best. Former Straus Military Reform Project Director Winslow Wheeler found Congress expends much more effort to enable defense and intelligence agencies than it does to oversee and hold these agencies accountable for their conduct. But there were a few instances of Congressional action this week worth highlighting.

Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) has been tireless in his pursuit of justice for two pilots improperly blamed for a V-22 crash that killed 19 Marines in 2000. For years the Marine Corps faulted the pilots, Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber, in order to protect the controversial weapon program. Representative Jones spent years fighting that decision, giving more than 150 speeches on the House Floor to bring attention to the issue. He finally succeeded in clearing their names last year. Now he and their widows want to know why the pilots were incorrectly blamed for that crash and have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to bring the truth to light.

As a Member of Congress and a member of the Armed Services Committee, Representative Jones shouldn’t have to file a FOIA request to get this information, the agency should provide it. Unfortunately, even with its flaws, we have seen a number of instances where the FOIA process was more effective for getting information than a direct request from Congress.

Secrecy is only legitimate if it truly protects the lives of our service members or information critical to the national security. It shouldn’t be used as a tool to avoid accountability from Congress or the public.

Earlier this year Representative Jones filed a FOIA request seeking documents related to the crash. All he received back, Tara Copp at Stars and Stripes reports, was “a single page that was heavily redacted, with none of the answers he had sought.” Attorney Mark Zaid is representing Representative Jones, the widows, and their children in the suit, and he sent copies of the suit to the Marine Corps, Navy, and Department of Defense Office of Inspector General.

In a glimmer of hope on the Senate side, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) has had it with the Department of Defense’s failure to provide the Committee with information for its strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the best way to get the Department’s attention is to withhold funding rather than to act as chief cheerleader for high budgets (for example, the House Armed Services Committee threatened to withhold $500 million in order to obtain documents related to the swap of five Taliban detainees in exchange for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl), Senator McCain is doing the next best thing by halting the Department’s nominees.

“This committee will not be a rubber stamp for any policy or president,” Senator McCain said in opening remarks for yesterday’s Afghanistan hearing. “We must be convinced of the merits of the administration’s actions. And unfortunately, we still have far more questions than answers about this new strategy.”

In addition to withholding from Congress and the public information about the strategy, the Department is increasingly and unnecessarily secretive about the number of troops being deployed. Pressed on this point by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remained adamant about keeping this information secret.

“Neither Mattis nor Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also testified, explained just how public deployment numbers might help the Taliban,” Paul McLeary at Foreign Policy notes. “And local news reports detailing troop deployments from U.S. Army bases to Afghanistan are widely available; those reports suggest about 2,700 U.S. soldiers have already deployed, or will soon deploy, as part of the latest surge.” The American people just aren’t going to get that information from their own government.

Secrecy is only legitimate if it truly protects the lives of our servicemembers or information critical to the national security. It shouldn’t be used as a tool to avoid accountability to Congress or the public. We hope Congress will keep pushing the Department to be more transparent about its war objectives, and to own up to its past mistakes.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

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