Pentagon Audit: “There Will Be Unpleasant Surprises”

For the first time in its history, the Department of Defense is now undergoing a financial audit.

The audit, announced last December, is itself a major undertaking that is expected to cost $367 million and to involve some 1200 auditors. The results are to be reported in November 2018.

“Until this year, DoD was the only large federal agency not under full financial statement audit,” Pentagon chief financial officer David L. Norquist told the Senate Budget Committee in March. Considering the size of the Pentagon, the project is “likely to be the largest audit ever undertaken,” he said.

The purpose of such an audit is to validate the agency’s financial statements, to detect error or fraud, to facilitate oversight, and to identify problem areas. Expectations regarding the outcome are moderate.

“DOD is not generally expected to receive an unqualified opinion [i.e. an opinion that affirms the accuracy of DoD financial statements] on its first-ever, agency-wide audit in FY2018,” the Congressional Research Service said in a new report last week. See Defense Primer: Understanding the Process for Auditing the Department of Defense, CRS In Focus, June 26, 2018.

In fact, “It took the Department of Homeland Security, a relatively new and much smaller enterprise, about ten years to get to its first clean opinion,” Mr. Norquist noted at the March Senate hearing.

In the case of the DoD audit, “I anticipate the audit process will uncover many places where our controls or processes are broken. There will be unpleasant surprises. Some of these problems may also prove frustratingly difficult to fix.”

“But the alternative is to operate in ignorance of the challenge and miss the opportunity to reform.  Fixing these vulnerabilities is essential to avoid costly or destructive problems in the future,” Mr. Norquist said.

Reading DoD Reports to Congress

The U.S. Department of Defense spent $11.3 billion on purchases abroad in 2015, including $1.6 billion worth of goods or services from the United Arab Emirates, according to a newly released DoD report to Congress.

The majority of foreign purchases by DoD were for fuel, services, construction and subsistence. The DoD report breaks down the total that was spent abroad by DoD in each of several dozen foreign countries.

See Purchases from Foreign Entities in FY2015, DoD report to Congress, June 2016 (released under FOIA May 2018).

Update: The June 2017 DoD report on purchases from foreign entities in FY 2016 is here. Reports from prior years can be found here.

DoD reports to Congress are often a significant source of official information and perspective on various aspects of U.S. military policy.

Most recently, DoD produced its required report on Civilian Casualties in Connection With United States Military Operations in 2017, June 1, 2018.

A few months ago, the Pentagon submitted an Interim Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense, March 2018.

A report last year addressed Department of Defense Infrastructure Capacity, October 2017.

Public access to such reports is sporadic and often delayed. A bill pending in the House of Representatives would require the Government Publishing Office to post all such (unclassified) reports online. See Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (HR 4631).

DoD: North Korea is Committed to its Nuclear Forces

“Pyongyang portrays nuclear weapons as its most effective way to deter the threat from the United States,” the Department of Defense says in a newly disclosed report to Congress on North Korean security policy.

“North Korea’s primary strategic goal is perpetual Kim family rule via the simultaneous development of its economy and nuclear weapons program — a two-pronged policy known as byungjin.” See Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2017, Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2018.

The DoD assessment presents an uncompromisingly hostile North Korea that is committed to nuclear weapons. The report provides no reason to anticipate a reconsideration or a reorientation of the country’s nuclear policies, though that is the entire premise of the upcoming June 12 summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The report, generated in February 2018, has not been posted online by the Department of Defense. (Update: now posted by DoD.) It was first reported last week by Anthony Capaccio of Bloomberg. See Pentagon Says North Korea’s Regime Has Staked Its Survival on Nuclear Weapons, May 17.

“North Korea ultimately seeks the capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-armed ICBM,” the Pentagon report said. “This pursuit supports North Korea’s strategy of deterring the United States as well as weakening U.S. alliances in the region by casting doubt on the U.S.commitment to extended deterrence. In the long term, North Korea may see nuclear weapons as permitting more frequent coercive behavior and may further increase Kim Jong Un’s tolerance for risk.”

The DoD report, required by statute and reflecting developments only through December 15, 2017, is largely consistent with previous DoD reports on the subject. It includes some new material on North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, cyber capabilities, special operations forces, and other topics.

Pentagon Pursues Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as machine learning are already being used by the Department of Defense in operations in Iraq and Syria, and they have many potential uses in intelligence processing, military logistics, cyber defense, as well as autonomous weapon systems.

The range of such applications for defense and intelligence is surveyed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

The CRS report also reviews DoD funding for AI, international competition in the field, including Chinese investment in US AI companies, and the foreseeable impacts of AI technologies on the future of combat. See Artificial Intelligence and National Security, April 26, 2018.

“We’re going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we’ll have self-driving cars on the streets,” Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering told Congress last month (as reported by Bloomberg).

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Foreign Aid: An Introduction to U.S. Programs and Policy, April 25, 2018

OPIC, USAID, and Proposed Development Finance Reorganization, April 27, 2018

OPEC and Non-OPEC Crude Oil Production Agreement: Compliance StatusCRS Insight, April 26, 2018

What Is the Farm Bill?, updated April 26, 2018

A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense–Issues for Congress, updated April 26, 2018

Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated April 27, 2018

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress, updated April 25, 2018

Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress, updated April 25, 2018

The First Responder Network (FirstNet) and Next-Generation Communications for Public Safety: Issues for Congress, April 27, 2018

African American Members of the United States Congress: 1870-2018, updated April 26, 2018

DoD Seeks New FOIA Exemption for Fourth Time

For the fourth year in a row, the Department of Defense has asked Congress to legislate a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act in the FY2019 national defense authorization act for certain unclassified military tactics, techniques and procedures.

Previous requests for such an exemption were rebuffed or ignored by Congress.

The Defense Department again justified its request by explaining that a 2011 US Supreme Court decision in Milner v. Department of the Navy had significantly narrowed its authority to withhold such information under FOIA.

“Before that decision, the Department was authorized to withhold sensitive information on critical infrastructure and military tactics, techniques, and procedures from release under FOIA pursuant to Exemption 2,” DoD wrote in a legislative proposal that was transmitted to Congress on March 16 and posted online yesterday by the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel.

“This proposal similarly would amend section 130e to add protections for military tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and rules of engagement that, if publicly disclosed, could reasonably be expected to provide an operational military advantage to an adversary.”

In a new justification added this year, DoD further argued that the exemption was needed to protect its cyber activities. “The probability of successful cyber operations would be limited with the public release of cyber-related TTPs. This [FOIA exemption] proposal would add a layer of mission assurance to unclassified cyber operations and enhance the Department of Defense’s ability to project cyber effects while protecting national security resources.”

New FOIA exemptions are often unpopular and are not always routinely approved by Congress, which has repeatedly dismissed this particular proposal.

DoD has circumscribed the proposed exemption in such a way as to limit its likely impact and to make it somewhat more palatable if it were ever adopted. It would not apply to all TTPs, many of which are freely disclosed online. It would require personal, non-delegable certification by the Secretary of Defense that exemption of particular information was justified. And it would include a balancing test requiring consideration of the public interest in disclosure of information proposed for exemption.

But many FOIA advocates said the proposal was nonetheless inappropriate. It “would undermine the FOIA, creating an unnecessary and overbroad secrecy provision at odds with FOIA’s goal of transparency and accountability to the public,” they wrote in a letter objecting to last year’s version of the proposal.

Growing Pentagon Secrecy Draws Questions

In just the last few weeks and months, U.S. military officials imposed new restrictions on media interviews and base visits, at least temporarily; they blocked (but later permitted) publication of current data on the extent of insurgent control of Afghanistan; and they classified previously unclassified information concerning future flight tests of ballistic missile defense systems.

“We’ve seen multiple instances in the past year where the [military] services have sought to be more guarded in their transparency and accessibility to the media,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “Part of that’s understandable, but I think transparency is needed now more than ever.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis said in response that he didn’t exactly disagree.

“I want more engagement with the media, [but] I want you to give your name, I don’t want to read that somebody spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak,” Mattis said.

“I have yet to tell anyone they’re not authorized to speak. So if they’re not willing to say they know about the issue and give their name that would concern me. If they’re giving background, they should just be a defense official giving background information authorized to give it.”

“What I don’t want is pre-decisional information, or classified information or any information about upcoming military movements or operations, which is the normal lose lips sink ships kind of restriction.”

“Pre-decisional, we do not close the president’s decision making maneuver space by saying things before the president has made a decision. But otherwise, I want more engagement with the military, and I don’t want to see an increase in opaqueness about what we’re doing.”

“We’re already remote enough from the American people by our size and by our continued focus overseas. We need to be more engaged here at home,” Secretary Mattis said.

Part of that is understandable, as Rep. Gallagher said. But it does not correspond to, or justify, the way that DoD conducts itself in practice, which has certainly produced “an increase in opaqueness.”

Last week, for example, DoD published its regular quarterly report for December 2017 on the number of US troops deployed abroad — but now with the number of troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan deleted. See Pentagon strips Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria troop numbers from web by Tara Copp, Military Times, April 9. (Previously disclosed numbers in prior quarterly reports were also deleted but then reposted last week.)

Citing the new secrecy, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said “I’m very concerned about that. I think that there’s no combat advantage to obfuscating the number of U.S. service members that were in these countries three months ago. And, furthermore, the American public has a right to know. Do you intend to restore that information to the website?,” she asked Secretary Mattis at last week’s hearing.

“I’ll certainly look at it,” he replied. “I share your conviction that the American people should know everything that doesn’t give the enemy an advantage.”

Documenting the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group

The National Declassification Center is preparing to release a set of newly declassified records concerning a little-known Pentagon advisory group called the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) that operated from 1948 to 1976.

The purpose of the WSEG was “to provide rigorous, unprejudiced and independent analyses and evaluations of present and future weapons systems under probable future combat conditions– prepared by the ablest professional minds, military and civilian, and the most advanced analytical methods that can be brought to bear,” according to its founding 1948 directive.

For at least part of its existence, the WSEG “occupied a preeminent position as the principal analytical support agency of its kind at the upper echelons of the DoD,” an official 1979 history of the organization said.

An overview of the upcoming release of declassified WSEG records was posted yesterday by Alex Daverede of the National Declassification Center.

The records include a broad range of topics on weapons systems and war fighting in the early cold war context, only a portion of which will actually be made public. One report, that apparently will remain classified, is entitled “Capabilities of Atomic Weapons for the Attack of Troop Targets.” Other studies address air defense, biological warfare, Soviet military systems, and more.

“I should be done with the declassification work by the end of the month, perhaps sooner,” Mr. Daverede said yesterday.

“This was not a big project for us–only 18 Hollinger [document storage] boxes,” he said. “Ten boxes hold documents that retained their classification after they were re-reviewed, so actual pages released would probably be closer to 5K pages.  Unfortunately there are multiple copies of each document, so in terms of unique pages declassified we are looking at considerably less than 5K.  The up side is that the whole series had been exempt before we re-examined it, so I feel pretty good about getting some records of this obscure organization out on the street.”

Some of the war-fighting topics considered by the WSEG were also on the mind of Daniel Ellsberg during some of the same years, as he discussed in his recent book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. The book has been widely and favorably reviewed in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and Arms Control Today (by Robert S. Norris of FAS), among others.

Ellsberg did not mention the WSEG in his book, but the WSEG was well aware of him.

There was a “period of JCS retrenchment in SIOP-related studies after the Ellsberg incident,” according to the 1979 WSEG history. That is, there was a decline in nuclear targeting studies requested by the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the WSEG following Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon papers.

The Post-9/11 Cost of War, Updated

As of August 2017, the Department of Defense (DoD) had obligated $1.474 trillion for war-related costs since September 11, 2001. DoD updated its official cost report last month. See Cost of War Update as of August 31, 2017.

Average monthly spending in 2017 was $3.9 billion, up from an average of $3.5 billion in 2016, the report said.

The total post-9/11 spending figure includes $83 billion in classified appropriations, not including non-DoD classified expenditures (e.g. CIA spending).

The reported costs of war are highly dependent on the definition of the term. DoD’s total figure, which does not include many kinds of indirect costs, is substantially lower than estimates by other analysts such as the Watson Institute at Brown University, which placed the total figure at $5.6 trillion as of November 2017.

The DoD report also understates the number of US troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A Profile of Defense Science & Tech Spending

Annual spending on defense science and technology has “grown substantially” over the past four decades from $2.3 billion in FY1978 to $13.4 billion in FY2018 or by nearly 90% in constant dollars, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Defense science and technology refers to the early stages of military research and development, including basic research (known by its budget code 6.1), applied research (6.2) and advanced technology development (6.3).

“While there is little direct opposition to Defense S&T spending in its own right,” the CRS report says, “there is intense competition for available dollars in the appropriations process,” such that sustained R&D spending is never guaranteed.

Still, “some have questioned the effectiveness of defense investments in R&D.”

CRS takes note of a 2012 article published by the Center for American Progress which argued that military spending was an inefficient way to spur innovation and that the growing sophistication of military technology was poorly suited to meet some low-tech threats such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan (as discussed in an earlier article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

The new CRS report presents an overview of the defense science and tech budget, its role in national defense, and questions about its proper size and proportion. See Defense Science and Technology Funding, February 21, 2018,

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, updated February 16, 2018

Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations, updated February 16, 2018

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated February 15, 2018

Potential Options for Electric Power Resiliency in the U.S. Virgin Islands, February 14, 2018

U.S. Manufacturing in International Perspective, updated February 21, 2018

Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated February 15, 2018

Where Can Corporations Be Sued for Patent Infringement? Part ICRS Legal Sidebar, February 20, 2018

How Broad A Shield? A Brief Overview of Section 230 of the Communications Decency ActCRS Legal Sidebar, February 21, 2018

Russians Indicted for Online Election TrollingCRS Legal Sidebar, February 21, 2018

Hunting and Fishing on Federal Lands and Waters: Overview and Issues for Congress, February 14, 2018