Just when it seemed the Pentagon had ushered in a new era of transparency, it took a small step backwards.
Last week, the Project On Government Oversight blogged about the Pentagon reversing its decision to classify a large amount of data about the condition of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the development and training of which has cost taxpayers $65 billion. The newly declassified data, published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), revealed problems with the strength and capabilities of Afghanistan’s police and military forces, particularly the Afghan National Army.
What should have been a victory for government transparency, however, was spoiled by more tomfoolery from Pentagon censors. At the end of February, the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) issued an audit report finding that the billions of dollars in direct assistance the U.S. and international community is providing to sustain the ANSF is at increased risk of fraud and abuse. The public isn’t allowed to see this report because, like many other DoD IG reports, it was designated “For Official Use Only” (FOUO). As a result, only a summary of the report is posted on the DoD IG’s website. Fortunately, Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg News read the full report and provided a detailed account of its findings, and the Federation of American Scientists posted the report on its website.
The FOUO label is supposed to be applied only if disclosure “would reasonably be expected to cause a foreseeable harm,” such as a violation of a person’s privacy or a company’s trade secrets, or interference with a criminal investigation.
It’s hard to see what in the report merits the FOUO marking. First of all, its findings are already common knowledge. For more than a year, SIGAR has been sounding the alarm about weaknesses in the Afghan government’s ability to manage direct assistance funds. Second, the report is notably light on detail. A few specific examples of weak oversight are provided, but it omits names, pricing data, and any other information that might legitimately qualify as FOUO. Even if specific text or graphics raised concern, redactions would have been a more acceptable solution than pulling the entire report from public release.
Is the Pentagon deliberately trying to hide bad news about Afghanistan? Given its wildly inconsistent, often ludicrous transparency policy, this is a legitimate concern. After all, we already know the lengths to which the military command will go to try to control the message coming out of Afghanistan.
The U.S. has invested nearly $100 billion in Afghanistan’s rebuilding, with billions more due to be spent over the next few years. Taxpayers are understandably concerned that the government is not being completely forthright about what that investment is accomplishing. It would go a long way toward strengthening public trust if the Pentagon would be less secretive with its Afghanistan reports—no matter how bleak the findings.