The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives voted to approve a massive military budget of nearly $700 billion late last year and President Donald Trump has signed the legislation, but it remains unclear whether Congress will pass a bill appropriating the necessary funds as a potential government shutdown looms.
Though the latest partisan disagreements over government funding largely stem from reasons other than defense spending, issues around transparency at the Pentagon also appear to be playing a role. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made the rounds on Capitol Hill last week to promote the importance of funding his department, “but it’s unclear he moved the needle in favor of Pentagon spending,” according to Defense News. Although it’s technically been an annual requirement for decades, last month the Defense Department announced the launch of its first ever audit, projected to cost nearly $1 billion — though that’s not so much, actually, for a government department so bloated that its capable of making trillions of dollars in accounting errors in a single year.
Over the past year, in the wake of warnings from top military officials “against talking too openly with the press,” transparency has deteriorated at the Pentagon to the point that “secrecy is undermining its quest for a bigger budget,” according to Caroline Houck and Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One.
In 2017, Defense Secretary Mattis reportedly issued a “guidance” to military “press operations” personnel “to be cautious about publicly telegraphing readiness shortfalls,” according to the Military Times. Mattis reportedly “urged the forces to continue to engage with the press — but corral the message provided,” and to “always project strength when we do it.”
The Pentagon’s PR people apparently took the message to heart. “But this has created problems for top military leaders as they prepare to testify before Congress to ask for more money,” the Times notes.
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), a first-term Congressman and retired Marine, as well as the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), have reportedly sparred with the Defense Department over its lack of transparency in recent months.
McCain, for one, is no stranger to being manipulated by the U.S. military into supporting increased funding and troop levels. Seven years ago, a report from the late award-winning journalist Michael Hastings alleged that Sen. McCain, among other visiting legislators, was inappropriately targeted for manipulation by a U.S. Army “psychological operations” team in Afghanistan. Hastings, who would go on to warn of the dangers of a domestic propaganda ban repeal being pushed in 2012 (by none other than Rep. Thornberry, ironically), later died in a fiery car crash in Los Angeles under somewhat suspicious circumstances just weeks before the repeal went into effect.
It may be the case that the United States really needs to spend $700 billion to defend itself in 2018. Given that there is at best a serious lack of candor and detail, and at worst a deliberate strategy of deception, surrounding what the Pentagon needs that money for, however, members of Congress have every right to be cautious about authorizing the appropriation of those funds — perhaps even more so than they actually will be in the end.