Pentagon prevents military officers from testifying before House panel

Pentagon lawyers abruptly blocked mid-level active-duty military officers from speaking Thursday during a closed-door House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee briefing about their personal experiences working with Iraqi security forces.

The Pentagon's last-minute refusal to allow the officers' presentations surprised panel members and congressional aides, who are in the middle of an investigation into the effort to train and organize Iraqi forces.

Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Martin Meehan, D-Mass., called the Pentagon's move "outrageous" and left open the possibility of issuing subpoenas. "We have the power and the authority to subpoena whoever we want," Meehan said.

The episode was "one of these out-of-the-blue, what-is-going-on kinds of things," said Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Todd Akin, R-Mo.

A Pentagon spokeswoman defended the decision, stating that the committee did not comply with "long-standing" Defense Department policy stipulating that briefings not be recorded.

The committee had agreed not to record the briefing, the spokeswoman said. But, she added, "When we went there, we found out that it was going to be recorded and it wasn't in compliance with our policy."

But Meehan said he only heard about the issue of recording shortly before the meeting. The subcommittee's policy is to record all briefings, he said.

"The Pentagon does not make our rules," Meehan said.

The standoff between the Pentagon and the panel occurred as Congress and the White House remain locked in a battle over access to information on the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys. President Bush has refused to allow senior aides to testify under oath during public proceedings. Instead, the White House has offered aides to speak only privately with lawmakers -- with no transcript.

For the Thursday briefing, the Pentagon had flown in three officers from Fort Riley, Kan. -- a lieutenant colonel, major and a captain -- to speak to the panel. But they and a few other active-duty officers could only attend the meeting and speak to lawmakers off the record afterward.

Akin, who likened the issue to a "test of wills between a couple of staffers between two different branches of government," said the officers provided valuable insights after the session. "It's kind of a shame they couldn't be part of it," Akin said.

The Pentagon's decision to halt the briefing followed a memo sent to Capitol Hill that stipulated ground rules for "this and future requests for DOD participants" in congressional briefings. The memo was dated April 16, but Akin said the committee did not receive it until Wednesday night.

In the memo, the Pentagon stipulates that rules governing participation in congressional briefings vary depending on rank. More junior officers, for example, may only provide support to higher-level briefers and are not required to have their names in the record, the memo says.

The memo also states there should be no transcripts for "briefings and interviews."

An Army Reserve major and an Army National Guard first lieutenant -- dressed in civilian clothing -- were allowed to testify Thursday. The Pentagon spokeswoman said the reserve officers had paid their way to Washington and made clear they were not speaking on behalf of the Pentagon.

"I think it was a very unwise decision," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., a subcommittee member who immediately brought the issue to the attention of Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo. "Transparency builds trust. Trust builds support."

In a brief interview late Thursday, Skelton said he was looking into the issue. Andrews said the panel members are well aware of the military chain of command, and they understand military officers cannot make political statements. The goal of the hearing, he said, was to get an assessment from operational commanders of the Iraqi forces and their training, readiness and willingness to engage insurgents.

Both Akin and Andrews said it is not uncommon to have young military officers and enlistees testify before congressional committees during hearings and brief members during less formal meetings.

Indeed, Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan and Staff Sgt. John Shannon testified March 5 before the House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee hearing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

And on Jan. 23, Army 1st Sgt. Ciaran Allison testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the impact of Iraq operations on Army readiness.

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