The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday threatened to hold up Pentagon funding for military activities until the department reverses a policy of requiring sharply reduced reports to Congress. The Pentagon announced it is scrapping the policy a short time later.
"We have rescinded the guidance," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
The policy, which mandated all reports to Congress be around 10 pages in length, was put in place last year by the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, Little said. He noted that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former House member, is committed to being responsive to Congress.
"We've taken on board the concern about the guidance inside this one directorate inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and from our vantage point, we are moving on," Little said. "We look forward to continuing to work closely with the Article I branch of our government."
The policy drew a harsh rebuke from Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, the Armed Services Committee chairman, who learned of the new Pentagon policy during a briefing this week.
The new policy led to cutting the length of an annual report on China’s military from 69 pages last year to 19 pages. McKeon said the shortening was "outrageous" and an indicator that the Pentagon is attempting to obstruct Congress by limiting information on a key national security threat.
"To me it is outrageous you would limit the information given to Congress to let us perform our oversight duties especially on something as important as China, which increased their [defense] spending by over 12 percent while we're cutting a trillion dollars out of our defense budget," McKeon said on Fox News.
Mandating a limited report length is not an appropriate policy, he said.
Before the Pentagon backed down, McKeon asked Panetta in a letter to change the policy within 24 hours. As of yesterday afternoon, McKeon had not received a response; as a result, Pentagon requests to reprogram defense funds will be blocked, he said.
A committee aide said the Pentagon’s change in policy on reports does not mean McKeon’s hold on requests to reprogram funds will be approved. "We are still looking at it carefully—but this [issue] is no longer an impediment to that oversight," the aide said.
"I am sending notice to them that we’re not going to approve any of those funds except for urgent needs for war fighting until they contact us and change this policy," McKeon said.
Little told reporters at the Pentagon that the guidance was issued last year and was aimed at keeping documents as short as possible and around 10 pages in length. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had complained the reporting requirements from Congress were burdensome.
McKeon said in his letter that he first learned of the policy during a briefing by defense officials on the annual China military report, which was due March 1 but was not submitted until May.
The report "failed to contain some of the required reporting elements, as well as other sections that had been included in prior years," McKeon stated.
"I consider the report to be wholly inadequate and believe it minimizes the uncertainty and challenges posed by China’s military buildup," he said in the letter.
Defense officials said mandating truncated reports reflects the views of liberal policymakers and intelligence officials who have sought to play down or minimize China’s large-scale military buildup by placing the most alarming weapons and warfare capabilities in the classified version of the report. They include the new assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, Mark Lippert, a confidante of President Obama.
China’s communist-ruled military and government routinely protests the annual China military report, claiming it exaggerates the threat posed by China’s growing military.
"Our goal has always been, even with this written guidance, to ensure that Congress has full and thorough information," Little said.
In response to McKeon’s letter to Panetta, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James N. Miller stated in a letter that the policy sought to produce "timely and clear" reports for the 500 required each year by Congress.
"Unfortunately, it now appears that what was intended as a guideline for ensuring prompt and useful reports may have been misinterpreted," Miller stated.
Miller, in a memorandum to Pentagon officials on the matter, stated that "the explicit intent was to ensure more concise and well-written reports to Congress. Nevertheless, this part of the previous guidance appears to have been misinterpreted and has generated concern about the seriousness with which Policy takes its congressional reporting responsibilities. Therefore, this page-limit portion of the preceding guidance is rescinded effective immediately."
Miller said reports to Congress must still be concise and clearly written, as well as relevant and timely, but "there is no page limit."
"Congressional reports should be as long as necessary to ensure that they fully answer the questions posed by Congress," the memo stated.
Little defended the China military report, saying that the classified annex is much longer than 10 pages.
McKeon said briefers told him that "senior political leadership" in the Office of the Secretary of Defense had restricted the length of reports to Congress to 15 pages.
"The briefers confirmed that this policy was established without consultation with the committees of jurisdiction," he said, noting that the motivation did not appear to be cost saving, but rather designed "to limit the amount of information to be provided to Congress."
"Taken in context with the issuance of gag orders, the requirement for senior officials to sign non-disclosure agreements, and the tardiness of responses to requests for information, this policy reeks of obstructionism, a lack of transparency and is harmful to the constitutionally mandated congressional oversight and national security," McKeon said.
"This policy must be rescinded immediately," he stated.
Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the U.S. government divides legal powers between the branches. "If one branch refuses to talk to the other, especially about threats to our republic, then we all lose," Fisher said.
"Open democracies require more facts and information in order to survive, not less," he said. "When there are insufficient facts about a threat to national security, then our system of government ends up courting disaster."
Fisher said China’s direct assistance to North Korea's nuclear program—supplying transporter-erector-missile launchers for a new North Korean missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon to Alaska—is an example of the needed threat reporting.
"We now know from leaked Japanese government sources that the administration knew of China's assistance starting sometime in 2011, but decided not just to keep quiet about it, but also force our allies to shut up," Fisher said.
The reason for the cover up was that the administration sought to avoid upsetting the Chinese and losing Beijing’s cooperation in seeking to head off a future North Korean nuclear test, he said.
"This is horribly painful to watch unfold," Fisher said.
"The Pentagon is ordered to cut in half one of the most important annual reports mandated by the Congress. This not only then limits the boundaries of one of the most vital discussions in the Congress, but it then constitutes a ‘gag order’ on the members of Congress who do have access to classified sources, as they become less willing to speak publicly as so much more of what they know is now classified data."