Report

The Navy Wanted a New Cyber Official, but a Housing Scandal Got in the Way

Military families complain of appalling living conditions.

Phyllis Bayer, then the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations, and the environment, visited Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune residential communities to assess on going restoration efforts on the installation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isaiah Gomez)
Phyllis Bayer, then the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations, and the environment, visited Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune residential communities to assess on going restoration efforts on the installation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isaiah Gomez)

The U.S. Navy had been considering dissolving the position of an assistant secretary who oversaw housing for military families and creating a new job in its place that would focus on increasingly important cybersecurity issues. But when some of those families complained at a showdown hearing in Congress last month about appalling living conditions—including mold, rat infestations, and lead paint—the Navy was forced to backtrack.

The reversal underscored how sensitive the military can be to public protests by its service members, especially when they’re aired in front of lawmakers. It also comes as President Donald Trump seeks to divert a significant chunk of funding for military construction, which includes base housing and infrastructure, to finance his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Several military families shared their stories before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13, including Janna Driver, the wife of a U.S. Air Force service member and mother of five children. She told lawmakers she and her family had a series of illnesses before discovering an extensive mold problem in a utility room.

“We will likely suffer from the effects of this for the rest of our lives, physically, financially, emotionally, and mentally,” Driver said.

Since then, all three service secretaries, as well as acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, have faced questions from lawmakers about the allegations. Officials traced the problem back to a 1996 military housing privatization effort that allowed contractors to take over management of some residences from the military.

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blamed the conditions on a “lack of accountability by the Department of Defense.”

At the time reports of the problems emerged, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was considering dissolving the position of assistant secretary of the navy for energy, installations, and environment, the top Navy civilian in charge of base housing. The holder of the position oversees sustaining, restoring, and modernizing all Navy and Marine Corps facilities; environmental protection; conservation of natural resources; and preserving the safety and health of personnel, according to the Navy.

Eliminating the post would have allowed the Navy to establish a new assistant secretary position for information management, to deal with the growing cybersecurity threat. Statutorily, the Navy is only allowed a set number of assistant secretary positions.

The woman who held the job for the past year, Phyllis Bayer, told Foreign Policy that the military does not invest in “the proper preventative maintenance at some of its facilities, resulting in poor conditions.”

“It’s almost disgraceful, because we don’t take care of our facilities the way we should,” she said.

But she said the Navy is “working hard to address those issues and to help ensure that the Navy and Marine Corps is as strong an advocate for our families as we should be.”

Bayer resigned her job earlier this month, in part due to the uncertainty hovering over the position—though she said she had also reached 30 years as a federal civil servant and wanted to spend more time at home.

But after Bayer submitted her resignation—one day before the Navy announced her decision to step down—Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, publicly reprimanded Spencer for trying to dissolve the position and insisted he reverse course.

In a March 7 hearing, he asked Spencer to commit to “not dispose of the position.” Spencer responded affirmatively.

“I apologize for my office getting ahead of the lights, that was not my intent,” Spencer said. “We are marching along, we will keep everything as is.”

However, he stressed that the proposal was designed to deal with what the Navy sees as a growing cybersecurity problem.

“It’s a risk that we have to manage,” Spencer said

In a statement, the Navy said it is re-evaluating options for Bayer’s position “due to competing priorities” but that Spencer “remains fully committed to the role and responsibilities” of the post and has begun an “active search” for a candidate to replace her.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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