Pentagon to Restore Briefings to ‘Maintain Open Dialogue’ About Its Activities
WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Wednesday that he and a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will begin doing regular briefings “to maintain an open dialogue about the department’s activities.”
Esper’s announcement, made in the Pentagon briefing room as he stood alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Corps. Gen. Joseph Dunford, is marked change in the recent policy of the department, which last held such a briefing a year ago this week.
“The United States military has a proud history and a great story to tell,” Esper said in explaining the rationale behind the new policy to a briefing room crowded with dozens of journalists and photographers.
“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, and Marines, and Department of Defense civilians do every day to keep our nation safe,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s first Defense Secretary, Gen. James Mattis, was well liked by the media, but he rarely spoke to reporters. Mattis’s interim successor, Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan, did no briefings in his short time at the helm.
But Esper, a career Boeing executive, genuinely appeared to enjoy the give and take with reporters Wednesday, even as he was repeatedly pressed to comment on Trump’s rhetoric and other matters stemming from the White House.
“My commitment is to keep this department apolitical, and I believe the best way to do that begins with the Chairman and I behaving in an apolitical way,” Esper said. “From there, the leadership that we demonstrate, the values we emulate, work their way throughout the force.”
“Of course, we have rules and regulations throughout the services that say you can’t wear political items on your uniform, etc. etc. We’ll continue to enforce those,” he said.
Esper then went on to offer an overview of his first 30 days in office and to talk about his priorities for the Department of Defense.
The new secretary said he will continue to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy, created by Mattis, which refocuses the Pentagon’s efforts toward competitors like China and Russia.
“It is clear that China is engaging in a deliberate strategy to undermine the stability of the region,” Esper said. “It is clear the values and behaviors of the communist party do not align with the vast majority of states.”
“Our direction remains fixed and I’m encouraged by the progress we are making strengthening alliances and partnerships, building more lethal force, reforming the department for better business practices and — I added this line myself — taking care of our servicemembers and their families,” he said.
Esper also announced that Operation Sentinel, a U.S.-led mission protecting shipping in the Persia Gulf, is now well underway with assistance from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Bahrain.
The operation’s goals are to protect vital shipping routes and to deter provocations and conflict with Iran.
“[W]e are not seeking conflict with Iran,” Esper said. “We want to engage with them diplomatically.
“You saw over the weekend some reporting the President once again said he is more than willing to meet with Iran’s leaders to resolve this diplomatically. That has been the purpose of Operation Sentinel, to get us off that track and onto a different one,” the Defense secretary said.
As for the day-to-day operations of the Pentagon itself, Esper said “We have modified our battle rhythm.”
“Every Monday, all of the department’s senior leaders — uniformed and civilian — are now meeting twice, in separate sessions, as a leadership team to ensure our priorities are aligned and to measure progress towards implementing the National Defense Strategy,” he said.
The session was somewhat bittersweet for General Dunford, as it was likely also his last. He is set to retire next month.
“I’m incredibly proud of the professionalism of our men and women in uniform, and with very few exceptions they have conducted themselves in a manner very consistent with our ethos, with our values,” the general said.
“It has been a very politically turbulent period of time,” he continued. “Yet almost 80 percent of people still have trust in the United States military as an institution.”
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