What Questions Is the Pentagon Avoiding?

The White House’s Sunday night announcement that it was deploying an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the Middle East to “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime,” immediately raised a series of questions.

  • Wasn’t this deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group already announced by the Navy in early April?
  • According to the Navy, it was a “regularly scheduled deployment,” planned long in advance. So, what changed?
  • If the deployment was being accelerated, as the administration later claimed, when was it originally supposed to arrive in the U.S. Central Command area of operations and when is it arriving now?
  • What were the “number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran that prompted the White House announcement?
  • What is the long-term strategy here? Could a provocation by proxy forces in Iraq lead to a U.S. war with Iran?

For the public to understand what was going on, the White House’s bellicose announcement demanded rigorous questioning. But there was nowhere to ask these questions on the record. The White House delivered the written statement from National Security Adviser John Bolton on Sunday night without a press conference or background phone call with reporters.

Over at the Pentagon, silence also pervades. The Pentagon has not held an on-camera briefing in over 300 days. Meanwhile, the less formal gaggles with Pentagon spokespeople, which used to occur a few times a week, are now held once or twice a month. Whether it’s the deployment of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, or the Defense Department’s controversial policy banning transgender recruits, it is increasingly difficult for reporters to ask officials about these moves on the record, on camera, and on behalf of the American public.

In the case of the aircraft carrier deployment and Iran’s provocations, the Pentagon finally emailed a statement explaining the accelerated schedule: a port visit in Croatia will be canceled. That helped clarify some of the confusion, but an emailed statement does not allow for follow-up questions, of which there are still many. And, new details emerged Thursday about what intelligence may have led to this surge in U.S. military forces to the region. NBC News exclusively reported that the decision “was based in part on intelligence that the Iranian regime has told some of its proxy forces and surrogates that they can now go after American military personnel and assets in the region.” The rationale was attributed to “three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.” But given recent history of the U.S. government manipulating intelligence to rally support for war, plus the Trump administration’s total lack of credibility, it is difficult to accept this report at face value, making it even more important for a public official to take on-camera questions about it.

Pentagon reporters have not had an on-camera briefing since August. That is scandalous, and a complete disservice to the U.S. military and the American public.

Plus, the public silence at the Pentagon coincides with an ongoing power vacuum among civilian leaders there. Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been serving as acting defense secretary since January. That means he has yet to face the Senate Armed Services Committee for a confirmation hearing for this crucial job in Trump’s cabinet. This leaves the senators tasked with oversight of the Pentagon unable to question and vet the person currently leading it. By Just Security co-editor-in-chief Steve Vladeck’s count, which he has updated regularly on Twitter, the position has been vacant for almost 130 days. “The previous record was 60 days” at the start of the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1989. On Thursday night, the White House finally announced that it was nominating Shanahan for the job of defense secretary, but he is only one of several top defense officials currently serving in an “acting” capacity.

As a former Pentagon reporter, I find it difficult to wrap my head around all of this. Briefings and gaggles were such a regular part of doing my job. Most importantly, they revealed the thinking or lack thereof behind policy decisions, including those that put members of the U.S. military in harm’s way. They also exposed gaps between the White House’s position on a given issue and that of the leadership at the Pentagon. And they were always an opportunity for public officials to face difficult questions, which is an important exercise in and of itself.

So what are some of the questions that Pentagon officials have been able to avoid answering publicly?

Iran/Iraq

How would you characterize the threat posed to American troops in Iraq right now?

U.S. Central Command recently assessed that “as long as Iranian-aligned forces are focused on supporting the Syrian regime’s fight against ISIS, they are not displaying the intent to attack U.S. forces. However, CENTCOM reported to the DoD OIG that this calculus could change if Iran perceives a U.S. desire to ramp up anti-Iranian activities in a post-ISIS environment.” Is this still CENTCOM’s view of the situation?

Based on this assessment, is there reason to believe that the threat to U.S. forces in the region has been heightened due to the administration’s ramped-up “anti-Iranian activities,” including withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, imposing stricter sanctions and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization?

When was the most recent attack on U.S. forces by Iran or its proxies? What was the U.S. response in that case?

Afghanistan

Why has the Pentagon stopped keeping track of the amount of territory controlled by the Taliban and the Afghan government? Without this metric, how is the Defense Department able to assess whether today’s military operations are having any impact?

As peace talks continue with the Taliban, who would you say is winning the war? Is it a stalemate or is momentum on the side of the Taliban?

What is the timetable being discussed in peace talks with the Taliban for the withdrawal of U.S. troops?

What assurances is the Taliban giving that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for terrorists again? Is it believable that the group would fully cut ties with al-Qaeda? What mechanisms would be put in place to enforce Taliban promises on terrorism?

What is the current status of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

What is your prognosis for what happens in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw? Do you expect the Afghan National Army to continue to shrink when U.S. troops leave?

How would you characterize Pakistan’s cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan right now?

Post-ISIS

How many troops are currently stationed in Syria? How many in Iraq?

What is the current timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Iraq?

Is the U.S. facing any impediments to withdrawing troops from Syria on the timeline ordered by the president? What are they?

What is the Pentagon’s advice to the White House on how quickly U.S. troops should withdraw?

What is the Pentagon’s assessment of what would happen to ISIS after U.S. troops withdraw from Syria and Iraq? Is there a worry it would regroup?

Is it the Pentagon’s view that ISIS has been defeated in Syria?

North Korea

What is the United States doing to build up defense against any North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile if denuclearization talks fail?

Why has the Defense Department suspended efforts to recover U.S. troops killed during the Korean War from North Korea?

How much progress was made before the effort was halted earlier this month?

Does the Pentagon still assess North Korea to pose an “extraordinary threat” to the U.S., as stated in the most recent Missile Defense Review?

Militarization of the Southern Border

How does the Pentagon perceive the terrorist threat emanating from the southern border?

What plans are in the works to increase the U.S. military’s presence at the southern border?

If more troops are deployed there, would they be active-duty or National Guard?

What does it mean for U.S. troops to get “a little rough” on their deployment to the border, as President Trump has threatened?

What is the appropriate role for U.S. troops when it comes to enforcing U.S. immigration laws?

What are the opportunity costs of sending more active-duty troops to the U.S. border? Are there other missions that suffer as a result? Where does the money come from in the Pentagon’s budget to pay for it? What military construction projects are not being paid for to fund these operations?

Transgender Ban

The U.S. military currently has 14,000 transgender troops serving openly. Has their service had any negative consequences on the military’s readiness or morale?

Has there been any uptick in hate crimes within military or civilian ranks in the Defense Department against those who are serving openly as transgender? What mechanisms does the department have in place to track such incidents specifically?

Does the department know how many U.S. service members missed the April 12 deadline to file their diagnosis of gender dysphoria who are now serving under the gender assigned them at birth or have since left the military?

How will the Pentagon maintain a culture of respect and equality toward those openly serving in the military when the commander-in-chief has stated they are essentially not wanted?

Trump pardon

What signal does President Trump’s pardon of Michael Behenna, the former Army lieutenant who served five years in prison for killing an Iraqi prisoner in 2008, send to U.S. troops in combat zones?

Behenna stripped the detainee, an al-Qaeda suspect, naked, interrogated him without authorization and then shot him twice. Is it the commander-in-chief condoning his behavior? Does the Defense Department?

Does Trump’s full pardon undermine the U.S. military’s own code of justice?

Venezuela

Are there any plans or discussions to send more U.S. military assets to address the crisis in Venezuela?

Is there a potential role for the U.S. military in handling the crisis in Venezuela beyond sending the Navy hospital ship?

Russia

What is the Pentagon’s assessment of the threat posed by Russia to U.S. military power?

Where is the department most concerned about the next potential Russian military action?

Pentagon Leadership Gaps

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway has said no work at the Pentagon is impeded by having so many people serving in an “acting” capacity. Is this the view of the Pentagon?

Press Access

Why has the Pentagon reduced on-camera briefings so drastically? Did it receive orders to do so from the White House? Has the department reduced its staff accordingly, if it feels there is no need for such briefings?

Will the Defense Department make a commitment to more regularly hold public, on-camera briefings so journalists can ask officials overseeing defense and military policy questions on behalf of the American public?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).