Pentagon’s Chief Weapons Buyer Promises Less Secrecy in Reports

(Bloomberg) -- Under President Barack Obama, the annual Pentagon report on the $58 billion Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers openly listed its planned capabilities. That changed under President Donald Trump, when the same information was stamped “For Official Use Only.”

In 2017, the Navy’s stamp on two pages about the troubled program rendered the entire 77-page report on the vessels restricted over information such as the estimated crew size. Adding to the confusion, the Navy removed the restriction on those pages in the carrier report issued last year, only to impose it on data about the contract with Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. for the second vessel in the class.

The trend toward secrecy has produced complaints in Congress and a pledge toward greater transparency from the Defense Department’s chief weapons buyer.

Pentagon’s Chief Weapons Buyer Promises Less Secrecy in Reports

“I understand the need, the requirement” for transparency, “and I will put out guidance to make everything open to the public to the degree we can,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters last month. “We do have a bunch of guidelines and internal rules” so “we’re working through that.”

For years, no restrictions were placed on the Selected Acquisition Reports, or “SAR.” That changed with many of the documents submitted as part of the first budget proposed by Trump and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who favored limiting public information on weapons programs lest Russia and China learn too much.

Not Classified

“For Official Use Only” isn’t a form of classified document like “Top Secret,” but it’s often treated that way by military personnel, congressional staff and civilian employees.

The SAR is used by defense lawmakers and their aides, defense analysts and journalists to track the status of major programs, including original estimated costs and delivery schedules. It’s one of the few sources of public information for the public to learn about the status of the Pentagon’s 87 major weapons programs valued at a collective $1.7 trillion.

Lord’s guidance is intended “to make every effort to refrain” from using the “For Official Use Only” designation in the reports, her spokesman, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, said in an email. “Classification procedures must still be followed in accordance with applicable laws and policies.”

Even when the label must be used, he said, “this doesn’t mean the entirety of the document is FOUO.”

Congress weighed in through the fiscal 2019 defense policy bill, which directed the Defense Department “to avoid labeling Selected Acquisition Reports as ‘For Official Use Only’ unless the specific justification for such restrictive markings is provided to the Congress for each individual report.”

Democratic Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an October opinion piece for Defense One that he was “greatly concerned about the administration’s abuse of processes designed to keep the public informed about the weapons programs that taxpayers are being asked to fund.”

“Not coincidentally,” Smith wrote, “the reports so labeled were usually ones that revealed a system didn’t work like it was supposed to, or that somebody in the Pentagon might be embarrassed by public knowledge of an error.”

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