Championing Responsible National Security Policy

The Pentagon’s War on Transparency

It’ll take more than press briefings to reverse the Department of Defense’s troubling retreat into secrecy
(Photo of James Mattis: DOD / Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith; illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

On August 28, Mark Esper held the first televised press briefing by a sitting secretary of defense in over a year. His predecessor, James Mattis, had stopped televised press briefings altogether, favoring informal but on the record conversations with reporters.

Across the DOD, basic information is becoming harder to find, forcing journalists and the public to rely on leaks, whistleblowers, and the official narrative.

During the briefing, which was reportedly packed, Esper spoke of his apparent desire to improve the department’s relationship with the public. “The United States military has a proud history and a great story to tell,” he said. “It is my commitment to the American people, who entrust us with their sons and daughters, to keep them informed of the work that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Department of Defense civilians do every day to keep our nation safe.”

Weeks later on September 19, Jonathan R. Hoffman, chief spokesman for the department, took to the podium to hold a televised press briefing, breaking a 15-month silence by his predecessor. “Keeping with our regular briefing schedule, we will see you guys again next September,” he joked at the end.

While the reintroduction of press briefings is a welcome development, the reality is that it will take much more than that to pry open doors nailed shut under Mattis. There are already signs that despite Esper’s touted commitment to openness, he is continuing some of Mattis’s more secretive practices.

A timeline created by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) shows that under Mattis and the Trump administration, a wave of increased secrecy swept through the Department of Defense. An analysis by POGO of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data from the Department of Defense shows a similar trend. From fiscal year 2014 through the end of fiscal year 2018, even as total FOIA requests were down by almost 7%, information withholding went up 16%. In 2018, the government used FOIA exemptions to redact information in over 60% of requests, a five-year high, compared to in 47% of requests in 2014. Some of that withholding may have gone too far: The data also shows a large spike in administrative appeals that resulted in a total reversal of the agency’s initial decision to conceal the information.

This chart reflects the number of DOD FOIA decisions that were completely remanded on appeal; that is, the number of times that the DOD denied a FOIA request, then that decision was appealed, and the appeal decision completely overturned the denial. A remand may indicate that the DOD's decision to withhold the information was improper.
(Chart created by CJ Ostrosky for POGO, and uses data from the Department of Justice, obtained by POGO)

And even though requests were down, the department’s FOIA backlog increased. By the end of 2018, the FOIA backlog was 11,391, the highest in almost a decade. It seems unlikely that the backlog size is due to insufficient resources, as the department’s data showed a big boost in FOIA personnel. From 2017 to 2018, staffing jumped from 712 to 954 full-time FOIA employees, the biggest increase since 2011. It is unclear why the backlog has grown so dramatically despite more FOIA employees to handle requests. The department failed to respond to multiple inquiries by POGO.

From a high of 74,117 in FY 2011, total FOIA requests to the DOD have fallen by 23%, according to the most recent data available.
(Chart created by CJ Ostrosky for POGO, using data from the Department of Justice, obtained by POGO)
Even though FOIA requests were down over the past ten years, the department’s FOIA backlog increased. By the end of 2018, the FOIA backlog was 11,391, the highest in almost a decade.
(Chart created by CJ Ostrosky for POGO, using data from the Department of Justice, obtained by POGO)

Creeping secrecy is, of course, not unique to the current administration. Under President Barak Obama, who on the second day of his presidency committed to “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” several indicators suggest he didn’t live up to that promise. A scathing Committee to Protect Journalists report pointed at the administration’s “aggressive” prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers, reduced White House access to the press, warrantless spying, and secrecy around the drone assassination program. During George W. Bush’s presidency, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a predictable explosion of secrecy given the intelligence failures and vulnerabilities the attacks exposed, with broad laws expanding what information was able to be withheld from the public. For example, Bush issued Executive Order 13292, which among other things eliminated the “presumption of disclosure” of government records. The number of original classification decisions soared, and agencies were given more authority to classify documents. The PATRIOT Act, passed during the Bush administration, allowed secret surveillance and warrantless searches of business records, and moved once public processes into the dark.

The legacy of post-9/11 secrecy is still with the United States today, but there is evidence of a renewed push for secrecy under the Trump administration.

The push began sometime around March 1, 2017, when then-Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson issued a memo to his senior civilian staff and flag officers that included a forceful reminder. “Sharing information about future operations and capabilities, even at the unclassified level, makes it easier for potential adversaries to gain an advantage.”

The National Interest obtained an email dated March 2 to public affairs officers across the Department of Defense, this time from the Pentagon’s then-spokesman Jeff Davis. The email took a similar tone:

While it can be tempting during budget season to publicly highlight readiness problems, we have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too. Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation. Know that he [the enemy] is well aware of our readiness shortfalls, as are our elected leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They don’t need news stories to remind them. Help is on the way.

When asked about the memo, said to be interpreting guidance directly from Mattis, Davis told The National Interest, “I’m glad you got it and I hope you do quote from it because we stand by it.”

A number of lawmakers across the political spectrum appeared to see this as a departure from normal operations. As Republican Representative Mike Gallagher told Defense News, “It is precisely because of the scale of the challenges before us that transparency is more important than ever. I worry that by failing to discuss problems, we will only ensure there is no public pressure to fix them.” Similarly, Democratic Representative Adam Smith called the changes “chilling” and wrote that they were “efforts to wrap the Pentagon in a blanket of unaccountability.”

In the months preceding this guidance, press reports were documenting low readiness rates and a sharp increase in military aviation accidents. According to a House Armed Services Committee fact sheet, “In 2017, nearly four times as many members of the military died in training accidents as were killed in combat.” As Real Clear Defense reported that same year, “Navy and Marine Corps have suffered enough accidental fatalities since 2015 to eclipse the total number of all uniformed American personnel killed in Afghanistan through both hostile and non-hostile action over the last three years.”

It’s an arbitrary move that simply tends to decrease public awareness of the scope of U.S. operations in those areas.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy

While the true root causes of the crisis are debatable­, some point to the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the Pentagon and its boosters jumped at the opportunity to call for increased spending. Yet over the next three years, Mattis and his subordinates would deny the public the ability to understand the Pentagon, the health of the military, and the country’s military activities abroad. Bit by bit, the Pentagon has become more secretive, in stark contrast with its “Principles of Information,” which states that “Information will not be classified or otherwise witheld [sic] to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment.”

Mattis made his interpretation of these principles clear when he sent an unwavering memorandum, dated October 3, 2017, addressed to all Department of Defense employees:

We must be vigilant in executing our responsibility to prevent disclosure of any information not authorized for release outside of the Department of Defense: All hands must be alert to prevent unauthorized disclosure of non-public information for any reason, whether by implied acknowledgement or intentional release. Misconduct cannot be tolerated and suspected or confirmed disclosure must be reported at once.

The tone of the memo is unmistakably blunt. And Mattis uses the term “non-public information” rather than classified information, effectively widening the bubble of secrecy not only to classified information, but to include any information produced within the walls of the world’s largest office building.

These events are detailed in the timeline of events compiled by POGO.

One of the earlier and more surprising changes following these policy directives was reported by Tara Copp, then a reporter at Military Times. Sometime before Copp reported the story in April 2018, the Pentagon decided the public shouldn’t be allowed to know the number of troops deployed in active warzones around the world, broken down by country. Historically, the department had posted each quarter’s data after a 3-month delay. The data, previously posted on a website maintained by the Defense Manpower Data Center, appeared to be missing the numbers of troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. A note at the bottom of the spreadsheet now reads: “with ongoing operations, any questions concerning DoD personnel strength numbers are deferred to OSD Public Affairs/Joint Chiefs of Staff.” 

Active duty troop numbers in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were available to the public at a 3-month delay, prior to the Pentagon's decision to withhold this information.
(Source: screenshot of a download of data from The Defense Manpower Data Center, obtained by MilitaryTimes)
The data as it appears now, without the figures for active duty troop numbers in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. A note at the bottom of the spreadsheet now reads: “with ongoing operations, any questions concerning DoD personnel strength numbers are deferred to OSD Public Affairs/Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
(Source: screenshot of a download of data from The Defense Manpower Data Center, obtained by MilitaryTimes)

When POGO inquired about the most recent releasable troop numbers, the Office of the Secretary of Defense refused to give numbers for Syria, citing “operational security concerns,” and gave only approximate numbers for Afghanistan (14,000) and Iraq (5,200). A few weeks ago, the House passed legislation condemning the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The American public has been denied the ability to have an informed debate about a topic of extreme gravity—where and how many U.S. armed forces are deployed. Instead, the public must rely on vague or piecemeal information. While the department refused to disclose troop numbers in Syria, the Washington Post estimated the number of troops arriving based on photographs of U.S. convoys emerging from the region.

The Defense Manpower Data Center appears to have briefly erased and then reentered the historical troop level data a few days later, Copp reported on Twitter.

“There is such a thing as operational secrecy that does provide a tactical or strategic edge, but this isn’t it,” Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, told POGO. “It’s an arbitrary move that simply tends to decrease public awareness of the scope of U.S. operations in those areas.”

On May 10, 2018, a month after the data removal became known, members of the House Subcommittee on National Security of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote a letter to Mattis denouncing the change.

“In the interest of continued force protection, transparency, and accountability relating to our military presence in key combat zones, we respectfully request that you immediately reverse this policy,” wrote Representatives Stephen Lynch (D-MA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), and then-Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

Earlier in August 2017, Trump, during remarks on his Afghanistan policy, hinted at his plan to increase secrecy around troop deployment.

“I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options. We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” he said, echoing an earlier sentiment.

“The secrecy bit is always bullshit—the Taliban is not changing its strategy if it hears we’ve got 11,000 vs. 15,000 troops in Afghanistan,” said Jason Dempsey, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Army infantryman with two deployments to the country, in an interview with POGO. Dempsey, who worked on veterans’ issues under the Obama administration, has written extensively on the relationship between the military and the public.

“That absolutely is something the American public needs to know … we need to know which sons and daughters are being put in harm’s way and for what purpose and for how long,” Dempsey said.

The squeeze on information is apparently being felt inside the Pentagon as well. John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, published his concerns in his public quarterly report in October 2017 that the department was overclassifying information about Afghan forces’ capabilities. Key measures of progress were suddenly classified or restricted, hampering the mission of the office. Although his team could use the data internally, it could not make that data public.

“We’re having trouble getting information, although we can get classified information. It’s just that we cannot share it with the American people who ultimately are paying for the Afghan military, the Afghan police, their salaries, weapons, et cetera,” Sopko told NPR in January 2018. By then, Sopko was also forbidden from publishing data on the territorial gains and losses in the country. Removing this information, Center for Strategic and International Studies national security analyst Anthony Cordesman told the New York Times, meant “there now is no official estimate of progress in the war.”

Things didn’t get any cheerier for Sopko, who watched as whole categories of information became classified. Sopko spoke frequently to the press about how the push for secrecy was making his oversight mission more difficult.

“The classification, in some areas, we think is needless, but we don’t have classifying authority,” Sopko told Military Times this April. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for all of this and that’s the American taxpayer,” he added.

Although overclassification got worse under Mattis and Trump, it’s not a new issue. During the Obama administration, Sopko took issue with the sudden classification of data that had been public for six years prior. The Pentagon backed down a week later, after Sopko criticized the classification decision in a quarterly report.

Secrecy without justification seems to have become the new normal. In the spring of 2018, the Department of Defense refused to declassify the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, reversing a seven-year trend. The Obama administration began declassifying the total size of the arsenal in 2010, in hopes that other nuclear-armed nations would follow suit. “Increasing the transparency of our nuclear weapons stockpile, and our dismantlement, as well, is important to both our nonproliferation efforts and to the efforts we have under way to pursue arms control that will follow the new START treaty,” the Pentagon told reporters at the time.

Declassification requires sign off from the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, according to Aftergood. When the Federation of American Scientists requested the data for 2018, the Department of Energy authorized the release. The Pentagon, in a letter with no explanation, denied the request.

“The logic is opaque to me. Does this increase readiness? Does it increase deterrence? I would say no, and no. It increases ambiguity. And ambiguity is normally not what you want in nuclear weapons policy, you want clarity,” Aftergood told POGO, who had requested the data be made public. “I don’t really know how to assess DOD’s thought process that led to this conclusion but it occurred within the climate that Mattis established.”

Nuclear weapons policy wonks have historically been able to guess the size of the stockpile using open source methods. In 2010, for example, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists were off by only 87 warheads. (They guessed 5,200, it turned out to be 5,113.) But once again, the effect is that the public and experts are left with piecemeal information and estimates, and ultimately are unable to hold the government accountable.

This is true of the Navy as well. In 2018, the Navy removed data on aviation accidents from a public facing website, and offered no explanation. This change was made as the Navy faced an 82% spike in accidents between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, Military Times first reported. A Navy public affairs officer denied the change had anything to do with the Pentagon-wide Mattis guidance, saying it was part of a website redesign.

The creeping secrecy has since extended to the military’s public acknowledgment of air strikes. Prior to 2019, the Air Force and Central Command released fairly detailed summaries of air strikes. Details like location, intended target, and number of enemy combatants killed or targets destroyed are crucial for human rights and watchdog groups that attempt to investigate reports of civilian casualties.

As the military began ramping up its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq this year, the releases have gone from weekly to biweekly and don’t include key details, instead summarizing the airstrikes. Groups that track and investigate the aftermath of U.S. and coalition airstrikes were alarmed at the changes. Airwars tweeted that “[the U.S.-led coalition] has abandoned its 52-month record of saying where and on which dates it strikes in either Iraq or Syria - a major blow for public accountability.” The group estimates that, as of October 8, 2019, between 8,214 and 13,125 civilians have been killed, contrasted with the U.S.-led coalition’s estimate of 1,335, according to their website.

“In the period that we stopped releasing information we actually significantly ramped up airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and there was a significant increase in civilian casualties from U.S. coalition strikes,” said Emily Manna, a policy analyst at Open The Government, in an interview with POGO, “so it’s a really devastating loss of information for the groups trying to match reports of civilian harm with information that the U.S. military can actually confirm.”

According to Manna, this data collection and analysis is crucial because the Pentagon does not do on-the-ground assessments of civilian harm.

As data on U.S. military operations becomes less available, reporters and the public will likely become more reliant on official narratives through public affairs personnel.

In March 2018, the Air Force decided to “retrain” their public affairs staff, citing concerns of “operational security,” according to a memo obtained by Defense News“As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries which could erode our military advantage. We must now adapt to the reemergence of great power competition and the reality that our adversaries are learning from what we say in public,” the memo reads.

As John Donnelly, president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association, told Federal News Network at the time, “Given the ambiguity about what’s allowed and the message from the top stressing secrecy, officials who are wary about their careers may err on the side of withholding information. And in a worst case scenario, such guidance could be used to justify keeping out of public view data that may simply be embarrassing to the Air Force but that the U.S. citizenry needs to know.”

“I think Mattis was terrible on transparency and access,” Donnelly told POGO, when asked to reflect on the general’s legacy. “He sent a chilling signal through the Defense Department when it comes to press access.”

Across the Department of Defense, basic information is becoming harder to find, forcing journalists and the public to rely on leaks, whistleblowers, and, as long as they continue, the regularly scheduled press briefing. If Esper and his staff are serious about transparency, they’ll have to do much more than appear in front of a podium to undo the corrosive effects of the Mattis directive.