WASHINGTON ― All unclassified Pentagon reports ordered by Congress could be made public under an amendment Rep. Jackie Speier will propose to the annual defense policy bill, Defense News has learned.
The amendment, which is supported by a broad bipartisan group of government accountability and transparency groups, was drafted by Reps. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla. It would be offered for the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which the House Armed Services Committee is set to mark up July 1.
Speier, D-Calif., chairs the HASC Military Personnel Subcommittee.
Under current law, the Pentagon is required to publish on its website reports that do not contain classified or other sensitive information “to the extent practicable.” The amendment would remove that caveat.
The proposal would allow the Pentagon to waive the disclosure requirement, but the department would be required to publish a placeholder when it it has certified a report contains information that is non-releasable.
“Our government doesn’t work unless it is held accountable to the American people,” Porter said in a statement. “There is absolutely no reason that these unclassified studies should not be readily available to the public, the press, and Members of Congress. Waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon do not keep Orange County families safe, and we deserve access to these reports paid for by our tax dollars.”
Rooney, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the amendment would allow the American people and members of Congress to receive more accurate information pertaining to the Defense Department’s performance.
“Oversight of taxpayer dollars is essential in any agency, but especially when it comes to one as large as the Department of Defense,” he said. “Congress must hold all agencies accountable and transparent, including in the release of material deemed to be unclassified and safe for release to the public.”
Concerns about Pentagon transparency have been longstanding.
In the Senate Armed Services Committee's draft of the annual defense authorization bill (completed last week), Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, included language to require public disclosure of specific totals for military research projects.
“There is no transparency right now,” she said. “The Defense Department some information which universities they gave them to, but we don’t have a handle on how research dollars are actually spent and if the work was worthwhile. It’s important to be able to understand where taxpayer money is going.”
Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in January that he hopes to see “significant improvement” this year on loosening classification standards in the infamously overclassified Pentagon.
A POGO analysis of DoD’s Freedom of Information Act data showed, for 2018, a 16% jump in its use of FOIA exemptions to redact information in over 60% of requests, a five-year high.
The groups supporting the new measure in the House include Concerned Veterans for America, VoteVets, the National Taxpayers Union and the Project on Government Oversight.
“It’s about time the Pentagon makes its unclassified reports readily available to the public,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information. “The American taxpayers have a right to see where their taxpayer dollars are going, and Congress must have access to the reports to conduct effective oversight and make smart policy decisions. It’s great to see bipartisan consensus on this common sense issue.”
Note: This article was updated to include comments from Sen. Joni Ernst and additional reporting about Gen. John Hyten and the Project on Government Oversight.
Leo Shane III in Washington, D.C., 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.