A Pentagon Campaign to Keep the Public in the Dark

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Trump doesn’t much care for efforts to monitor and report on wasteful Pentagon spending and other military inefficiencies. This month, he ordered acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to withhold battlefield reports from inspectors general in order to keep the information from becoming public.

“The public means the enemy,” Trump explained. “Those reports should be private reports.”

This order doubles down on a worrying trend at the Defense Department since Trump took office toward increasing unnecessary secrecy.

While it’s true that the Pentagon has always kept its share of secrets, and for good reason, it is working toward a new level of opacity, classifying all sorts of information that has been public in the past — including the inspection grades on America’s nuclear-weapons infrastructure, records of Navy aviation accidents, and Government Accountability Office assessments of Pentagon waste. The Defense Department has also stopped revealing publicly the numbers of troops it has deployed in each theater of the war on terrorism.

Might these new restrictions be justified? It’s impossible to say, because the Pentagon offers only a vague explanation: “We balance the need to release information with our non-negotiable obligation to protect our most valuable asset — our people.”

But it is also important to preserve public trust in the armed forces, and that requires transparency. Congress and the American public need to know that secrets are kept only when it is essential — not when it merely protects the military from embarrassment or budgetary scrutiny.

Without accurate information on the success or lack of success of specific programs, Congress cannot properly plan future budgets. The details that Pentagon IGs gather on strategy and progress also inform the national debate that Americans need to have on the war on terrorism — the longest war in U.S. history.

Lawmakers from both parties responsible for the defense budget have complained about the new secrecy. Adam Smith, the new Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has accused the Defense Department of waging “a war on transparency.”

That’s one war Americans should hope the military will lose. The late Senator John McCain demonstrated one way to resist: In recent years, when the Pentagon held back details on the collisions of two Navy destroyers, the deaths of four special operations troops in Niger and the loosening of rules of engagement in Afghanistan, he held up the confirmations of defense officials until he got the information.

Congress should continue to demand that the military disclose its operations — or explain in detail why it cannot.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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