Micah Zenko

General Assistance

Why are civilian officials so much more secretive than the military?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In April 2006, I was glacially writing a doctoral dissertation while working another full-time job as a research associate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In a habit I had honed while working in even more lowly and less fulfilling research and/or administrative positions in Washington, I often attempted to arrange interviews with mid-level and senior civilian and military officials to discuss a range of national security topics.

On this particularly fortuitous day in April, I secured a late afternoon interview with Maj. Gen. Scott Gration (later the U.S. ambassador to Kenya), who was enrolled in a senior executive course with American and Russian military leaders and looking forward to his retirement from the Air Force shortly thereafter. For over an hour, Gration patiently and thoughtfully answered all of my questions, and provided leads to other Air Force leaders to whom I might speak — even giving me their call signs and spelling out last names. At the end of our conversation, when I asked Gration what his class was doing that evening, he mentioned that it had been unexpectedly dismissed several hours earlier so that people could PT (physical training) or see the Red Sox game. I will never forget how Gration casually remarked, "I stayed here, because I knew you wanted to talk to me."

This small act of kindness from a senior military officer has been the norm throughout my experience researching and writing on national security issues over the past dozen years. The same cannot be said for civilian officials, however. After attempting to meet with hundreds of current and former U.S. government leaders, I consistently encounter a civil-military split that you will not read about in a political science class: uniformed officers are much more willing to meet and are much more forthcoming with their thoughts than civilian officials. This dichotomy manifests itself in several ways.

First, military officials will take the time out of their busy schedules to meet with you because they feel obliged or obligated to help a naïve civilian better understand their service or their experiences in the military. A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff once called me from his home in North Carolina — as dogs barked in the background — to clarify how military plans flow from the planning staffs at combatant commands, through the Joint Staff, to decision-makers in White House.

Civilian officials, meanwhile, are much less likely to meet — especially if they are political appointees. While members of the military have an institution to defend and protect, civilians largely seek to protect the images of their bosses or the administration in power. And given that the average tenure for a senior Pentagon political appointee is between 11 and 20 months, why spend your time defending what you will soon leave?

Second, military officials are more candid and explicit about their opinions, even when they might be informed by classified information. Many argue that, due to the unnecessary loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq as the result of flawed political guidance or military strategies, they would rather be honest than temper their thinking on sensitive issues. I have also been told by several that they are also simply unafraid to voice their opinions, given that most have served multiple overseas tours in combat zones.

On the other hand, civilian officials rarely venture beyond preapproved talking points and will point you to a recent strategy document or speech by a more senior official — which, of course, you have already read — for additional clarity. Even when asking the most benign questions about an administration’s strategy, you often hear the equally benign response, "I can’t discuss that matter." Occasionally, they will pull the classified card — even when it is not germane, such as in matters regarding interagency processes. The primary concern, however, is that the information they reveal will appear the following day on the front page of the Washington Post, even if the issue is not remotely newsworthy and you have no history of blabbing.

Third, military officials — particularly when compared to their civilian bosses — express a great deal of humility about their personal accomplishments and knowledge. This humility stems from the scope, depth, and breadth of their experience, and the fact that they are generally older than their civilian counterparts. For example, the average U.S. Army colonel is 48 years old. The official leadership biographies for colonels and above contain the same basic information: education, assignments, major awards and decorations, and effective dates of promotion. However, these data points do not begin to describe the actual scope of responsibilities, although if you ask, they are more than happy to share.  

These uniformed officials will caveat almost every statement with the phrase, "This is merely Colonel (or General) X’s opinion." Because they live in a hierarchical organization that constantly emphasizes civilian control and oversight, many refuse to address topics that are either "above my pay grade" or better asked to "our bosses in suits."

Civilian officials often describe themselves as playing a central role in interagency debates, and happily name drop important senior officials as evidence. While only a few years younger than their military counterparts, they have absorbed the Washington-centric conventional wisdom surrounding most national security topics that tends to frame and limit their perspective. They are also more likely to use definitive and dramatic statements about U.S. foreign policy, like the State Department official who once remarked — regarding the overseas deployment of nuclear weapons — "This president would never leave any of America’s trusted allies hanging." Essentially, this official anticipated a criticism from the opposing political party, even though it was not an issue I had raised.

Based solely on the impressions of one person (myself), the consequences of the civil-military split on engagement with national security researchers are unclear. It raises important ethical questions in light of some of the revelations and critiques about David Petraeus’s relationship with the media and think tanks. Full disclosure: I was able to speak with Gen. Petraeus in February 2010 while he was serving as combatant commander for U.S. Central Command. If he tried to "shape" my opinion of the U.S. military in his area of responsibility, he was not successful. And as I noted in the opening vignette, I had witnessed this phenomenon long before I had any conceivable influence on anything — not that I do today.

As someone with the enormous privilege to think and write about national security issues, I recognize the absolute necessity of talking to people who actually develop and implement policy. This is often where academics writing for peer-reviewed outlets diverge with researchers writing timely, policy-relevant pieces in a think tank. For the latter, such as myself, there is a fundamental belief that personalities, relationships, and processes influence outcomes. I know for a fact that the willingness and openness of military officials to help me understand national security policies has an impact on how I perceive them. (Please be wary of this shortcoming when reading this column.) And to all the civilian officials in the U.S. government: I am happy to buy you a coffee, if you are willing to talk.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola