Secrecy News

Pentagon Pivots to More “Public Engagement”

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who took office last week, has directed senior military and civilian defense officials to “more actively engage with the public,” according to a Pentagon memo issued on Friday.

“Simply put, the Department benefits when we thoughtfully engage with the American public, Congressional leaders, international community, and the media,” wrote Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the Assistant to the Secretary for Public Affairs.

But increased public and media engagement does not necessarily mean increased disclosure or improved access to information.

“Always seek the appropriate balance between transparency and operational security,” the July 26 memo stated. “As senior leaders you are closer to pertinent issues. Therefore, you are often best suited to make determinations on what should or should not be released within classification guidelines and have the responsibility to protect even unclassified non-public information.”

Still, the new memo represents a change in attitude from that expressed by the previous Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis.

In an uncompromising October 2017 memo that was understood by Pentagon officials to discourage discretionary disclosures, SecDef Mattis wrote:

“We must be vigilant in executing our responsibility to prevent disclosure of any information not authorized for release outside of the Department of Defense: All hands must be alert to prevent unauthorized disclosure of non-public information for any reason, whether by implied acknowledgement or intentional release. Misconduct cannot be tolerated and suspected or confirmed disclosure must be reported at once.”

Following that direction from Secretary Mattis, many types of previously available defense-related information were in fact withdrawn from public and media access, such as the number of US troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and the current size of the US nuclear arsenal.

Therefore, if Secretary Esper wanted to increase public disclosure of defense information, it wouldn’t be hard to do.

Earlier this month, DoD produced its updated report on the post-9/11 cost of warthrough March 31, 2019.

“Since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) has obligated $1,548.5 billion for war-related costs,” the report said, using DoD’s somewhat arbitrary metrics for cost reporting.

The unclassified cost report was provided to Congress, but it was not publicly released by DoD.