Defense budget transparency needed

Published 8:18 am Wednesday, May 27, 2009

President Obama came to office boldly promising “a new era of openness in our country.” Less than 24 hours after taking the oath of office, the new president declared that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” In one of his first executive orders he wrote that, “democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” Boldly beginning another memorandum to his executive department and agency heads, he stated, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

The administration has certainly insisted on transparency when it involves divulging our interrogation techniques to alleged terrorists, but has refused to apply the same standard for the American people when it comes to the readiness of our nation’s defenses. In a move the Washington Post described as “unprecedented secrecy,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently instituted a gag order requiring hundreds of Pentagon officials involved in the budget process to sign a non—disclosure agreement barring them from discussing any proposed cuts or expenditures even to members of congress. These were the very individuals who had the expertise necessary to assess any potential damage to national security such cuts could present.

Additionally, when the defense budget for 2010 was sent to Congress, Title 10, Chapter 9, Section 231 U.S.C. specifically mandated that the Secretary of Defense include with the defense budget a 30-year shipbuilding plan for the Navy and a certification that “both the budget for that fiscal year and the future-years defense program” would be sufficient to meet the plan. If the budget could not meet the plan, the Secretary is required by statute to describe and discuss “the risks associated with the reduced force structure of naval vessels that will result…” The Secretary submitted none of this information with his budget and has indicated he will not submit the plan or the certification until the 2011 budget.

This information is essential for Members of Congress to analyze the defense budget and ensure the country will have a navy strong enough to meet our national security needs. Without it, there are huge concerns that we will not have adequate funds for shipbuilding, ship repair, and ship maintenance. This is especially important given the fact that last year it was revealed by the media that two of our naval vessels failed their InSurv inspections (the functional equivalent of a home inspection for navy ships) and were deemed “not combat ready.” Shortly after this revelation, the InSurv inspections were classified thereby preventing the results from being brought to the public’s attention. Since then, media reports have indicated that an additional four ships have failed these critical inspections.

Under the administration’s gag order, Army leaders refused to testify at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Army’s top acquisition project saying the hearing was “too closely aligned to FY2010 budget.” Transparency failures of this type leave Congress, which is charged in the Constitution with the responsibility “to raise and support Armies,” and “to provide and maintain a Navy,” without the information necessary to address national security weaknesses such as this year’s $417 million shortfall in ship depot maintenance.

Furthermore, the administration’s censoring of senior defense officials and classification of routine reports make it difficult for the critical assessments of our military readiness to occur well in advance of conflict. Additional secrecy in our defense budget does not promote our security but hides deficiencies in the infrastructure we rely on for national defense.

Certainly, a degree of budgetary deliberations deserve to be kept internal, and sensitive information that could be a threat to our sailors should be protected. Yet, I question an Administration that determines sharing previously unclassified ship readiness reports is more dangerous than releasing memos on the way the CIA interrogates alleged terrorists – the details of which were released by the White House earlier this year over the protests of the current and several former directors of the Central Intelligence Agency.

When it comes to the security of our citizens, we should be neither assessing capabilities on the battlefield nor allowing our budget to determine our strategy. In the near term, it may be politically opportune for the Administration to hide defense shortfalls in favor of funneling government spending elsewhere. In the long term, however, this secrecy in spending priorities only temporarily conceals a dangerous course for our nation.

Unfortunately, as our nation’s intelligence community found in the wake of Sept. 11, if the defense of our nation is tested and proven to be found wanting, it is too late to look in hindsight to identify who was asleep at the switch while our military was allowed to hollow.

The Department of Defense ought to abandon its most recent information lock—downs, lest the only thing transparent about the Administration be its claim to be transparent.