WASHINGTON ― The top Democrat and Republican of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday they will act against acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s new restrictions on how the Pentagon tells Congress about international military operations.
HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in statement they will use the nascent 2020 defense policy bill to address the restrictions, which would "dramatically limit Congress’ ability to execute our constitutional prerogative.” News of the policy was first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday.
“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,” Smith and Thornberry said. They added that the Defense Department “misunderstands the role and prerogatives of its committees of jurisdiction.”
The panel is set to mark up its version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in early June.
In a May 8 internal memo, Shanahan laid out the criteria for when Pentagon officials may provide congressional offices or committees information they request about operational plans and orders. It outlines a half-dozen guidelines through which military officials may share information with Congress.
The memo appears to have been inspired by concerns that lawmakers, who have security clearances, will not safeguard military plans. An unnamed defense official told the newspaper that the process in the memo was intended to provide more openness about special operations activities, not less.
Thornberry and Smith said the idea that Congress is a security risk for classified information “is both inexcusable and inaccurate."
“The Department is not in a position to evaluate Defense committees’ worthiness to receive classified information, nor characterize our ability to appropriately protect it,” the lawmakers said. “We intend to address this matter in the National Defense Authorization Act.”
Reporters and watchdogs have been critical of decreasing transparency at the Pentagon and restrictied information about troop deployments, specifically during Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ tenure.
On May 31, it will be a year since a Pentagon spokesperson or defense secretary held an on-camera briefing. Traditionally, spokespeople would hold on-camera briefings at least once a week.
One problem with the new policy is it lacks protections for whistleblowers, according to Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project. The concern is that the new policy could inhibit DoD employees from speaking out about misconduct.
McCullough’s organization and the nonpartisan organization Open the Government have reported the policy proposal to the Office of Special Counsel, the government agency charged with investigating and correcting violations of whistleblower laws.
“We’re afraid that DoD could use this memo to punish whistleblowers who talk to Congress about violations of law, rule, or regulation,” McCullough said in an email.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.