Acting Defense Secretary Restricts Information Military Can Share With Congress

May 24, 2019 by Dan McCue
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, speaks to members of the media as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens after a closed briefing for Senate members on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Acting Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Pompeo joined Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford to brief Congressional members on Iran. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS) **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has imposed new restrictions on the information the Pentagon can share with Congress about the United States’ military operations.

The order, first reported by the Washington Post, came in the form of a May 8 internal memo which laid out new rules for when and how the Pentagon can provide information to congressional committees or individual lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The Post’s revelations come at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and Venezuela, and as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the White House has repeatedly withheld information that is preventing Congress from performing its constitutionally-mandated oversight role.

In a joint statement, Representatives Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Mac Thornberry, the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services Committee, said “[i]f implemented, the department’s new policy guidance would dramatically limit Congress’ ability to execute our constitutional prerogative.

“Congress oversees the Department of Defense; but with this new policy, the department is overstepping its authority by presuming to determine what warrants legislative oversight. Furthermore, by applying this policy to all members of Congress, regardless of committee assignment, the Department misunderstands the role and prerogatives of its committees of jurisdiction,” Smith and Thornberry said.

They went on to complain that Shanahan’s memo effectively accuses Congress of being a security risk for classified information.

This is “both inexcusable and inaccurate” the representatives said.

“The Department is not in a position to evaluate Defense committees’ worthiness to receive classified information, nor characterize our ability to appropriately protect it”, Smith and Thornberry continued, vowing to address the matter in the next National Defense Authorization Act.

But Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, said in a statement that in establishing the new policy, the acting secretary is seeking to “increase transparency and information-sharing with Congress.”

“Under his direction, the Department of Defense has been engaging with the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to develop a process for providing Congress with access to plans and operational orders, including Executive Orders. This policy establishes such a process. Previously, no such policy existed,” Buccino said.

Shanahan’s memo includes a number of guidelines for evaluating requests for information from Congress and determining whether they “demonstrate a relationship to the legislative function.”

The Trump administration has used similar wording to justify its refusal to turn other documents over to congressional committees, including the unredacted Mueller report and several years of the president’s tax returns.

The Shanahan memo also directs Defense Department officials to provide a summary briefing rather than a requested operational plan or order itself, citing concerns that Congress will not provide the “degree of protection” to those documents that the Pentagon itself requires.

Shanahan also concentrates responsibility for evaluating congressional requests in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, which is typically led by a political appointee.

In the past, officials across the Defense Department had the ability to respond to requests from lawmakers directly.

Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has not commented publicly on the memo or the controversy now surrounding it.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the committee dismissed the memo as an excuse “not to respond to legitimate inquiry of Congress.”

He also suggested the members of Congress are “better positioned” than Pentagon staffers to “determine what we need to do our job.”

The memo could prove to be a headache for Shanahan next month, when he is scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing.

A former Boeing executive, Shanahan became acting Defense Secretary in January following the resignation of retired four-star Marine general James Mattis.

Mattis quit after repeatedly butting heads with President Trump, their last disagreement reportedly centering on the president’s decision to withdraw roughly 2,000 American troops from Syria last December.

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