President Trump, in a nationally televised Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, instructed acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to withhold classified battlefield reports from inspectors general, a move that brought objections from transparency advocates.
“I can tell you [a] story when I got here about our military that I don't even want to talk about,” Trump said. “We do these reports on our military. Some IG goes over there, and he goes over there and they do a report on every single thing. We're fighting wars and they're doing [a] report and releasing it to the public. The public means the enemy. Those reports should be private reports.”
The president continued: “Let them do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up ... [Giving the reports] out to the enemy is insane. And I don't want it to happen anymore, Mr. Secretary. You understand that?”
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Observers interpreted Trump’s remarks to refer to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General.
A year ago, SIGAR John Sopko criticized the Pentagon’s refusal to allow publication of details from certain classified battlefield reports. “For the first time since 2009,” he wrote, the military “classified the exact strength figures for most Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, another vital measure of.... reconstruction. Meanwhile, for the second consecutive quarter, DoD also classified or otherwise restricted information SIGAR had previously reported including such fundamental metrics of ANDSF performance as casualties, attrition, and most capability assessments.”
By May, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan had softened their stance and released some of the data.
Both the SIGAR and Defense IG public affairs offices declined to comment Thursday.
The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which tracks the performance of inspectors general in exposing waste and fraud, called the move “a big step against transparency and accountability.” It cautioned against throwing “a wet blanket of secrecy over all military-related watchdog reports.” Executive Director Danielle Brian said: “It's been almost 18 years of endless war [in Afghanistan], thousands of lives lost, and billions of taxpayer dollars spent. The American people and Congress deserve to know what's going on and these reports do exactly that.”
Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst with the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, told Government Executive, “These oversight reports reveal waste, fraud, abuse and even atrocities prolonging this endless war. But watchdog agencies have little authority to act on their own revelations, relying instead on civil society and defense policymakers to demand necessary change. This is a crucial component of the defense accountability system.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the newly sworn-in chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has announced that he will challenge Trump on military secrecy.
Earlier in the week, Trump issued a signing statement accompanying the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (S. 2736). “A number of provisions in the bill… purport to mandate or regulate submission to the Congress or publication of information protected by executive privilege,” he wrote. “My administration will treat these provisions consistent with the president’s constitutional authority to withhold information, the disclosure of which could impair national security, foreign relations, or the performance of the president’s constitutional duties.”