Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) called out Pentagon leaders during a defense budget request hearing on April 7 for ongoing failures to produce declassified versions of the reports used to compile and assess the budget.
“I think having this hearing without any detailed information about the budget and when we are unable to openly discuss any of the administration’s strategy documents, directly undermines the committee’s ability to conduct its oversight work, and it is contrary to the spirit of transparent government that these public hearings are intended to support,” Fischer said.
Fischer said that she was concerned Congress did not have the necessary information about how the Defense Department was constructing its budget. She further expressed concern that the Pentagon’s lack of transparency could result in Americans not being fully aware of threats to national security.
“We’re here today to review the department’s budget, but we have no detailed budget justification data,” Fischer said.
“We can’t talk about any strategy either. The administration’s national defense strategy, the nuclear posture review, and the missile defense review were submitted to Congress last week. But all of those documents are classified.”
The Biden administration has been working off of a 21-page interim national security strategy released over a year ago, and has not yet released public versions of either the national security or national defense strategies.
The administration did not provide a classified national defense strategy to Congress until the end of March of this year, and it has been tardy in the release of nearly every driving strategic document. The Indo-Pacific strategy, for example, a 15-page document slated to be published in the fall, was not released until February.
Fischer noted that the previous administration released the necessary documents publicly months ahead of budget proposals and hearings, going so far as to delay DoD testimony until Congress had had adequate time to vet the ask. Such efforts, she said, were vital for conducting “meaningful” Congressional hearings.
Fischer also lambasted the Pentagon’s decision to increasingly hide its workings by classifying relevant information, and said that declassifying strategic guidance seen by Congress would be necessary “So that the people of this country [can] understand the threats that we face.”
“I feel that we have gone backwards here in making these classified documents and not being transparent,” Fischer said.
The critique of military opaqueness echoed sentiments expressed by then-Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, who said in October that the military was worsening national security by concealing too much information in classified reports. He argued that overclassifying military projects was preventing credible deterrence.
“How do you expect to deter everybody if you keep everything in the black?” Hyten said. “The last element of deterrence, that we don’t do, is [to] communicate it credibly to our adversaries.”
“You can’t actually deter your adversary if everything is in the black, you know?”
The move to overclassify, he said, was driven by commanders’ desire to move projects forward at a reasonable pace and to prevent them from being inundated by a “brutal” bureaucracy. The thinking was simple, Hyten said: The less people able to see a project in the military, the less red tape would bog down its development.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin responded to Fischer’s comments, and said that the military was declassifying the strategy and budget request as quickly as it was able.
“In terms of being transparent, and when the detailed budget is released … it’s our goal, it’s our desire, it’s our mandate, to be as transparent with you as possible and we will do that.”
He added that the unclassified national defense strategy would be released “a bit later.”
Thursday’s Senate hearing marked the second day of at-times contentious interactions between Congress and Pentagon leadership.
During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on April 5, Austin was drawn into a heated verbal exchange with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), wherein Gaetz accused Austin of pandering to “wokeism” and Austin accused Gaetz of being “ashamed” of the military.
During the hearings, members of Congress have continuously called for additional funding to be injected into the defense budget, regardless of what amount of money the Pentagon actually requests. Relatedly, members of both the House and Senate have expressed deep concern with the United States’ ability to contend militarily with both China and Russia simultaneously.
Gen. Mark Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that global instability was “increasing, not decreasing.”
“The United States is at a very critical and historic geo-strategic inflection point,” Milley said at the Senate hearing on April 7.
“It remains imperative that we redouble our efforts to improve readiness and to modernize so that we remain the most capable and lethal force on the planet.”