Mark Esper’s Biggest Challenge

The new U.S. secretary of defense needs to undo the damage Mattis and his predecessors did to transparency in the department.

By Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 29.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 29. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

After a historic wait, as of late July, the United States finally has a confirmed secretary of defense, Mark Esper. One of his first actions on the job was to resume more frequent and formal engagements with the media. As Lara Seligman reported for Foreign Policy, experts believe that his moves are “positive steps toward mending the Pentagon’s relationship with the press, which atrophied during former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s nearly two years in the position.”

But Esper’s predecessor, Mattis, limited transparency not only with the press, but also across the whole Department of Defense. Most notably, he reduced the department’s testimony and interactions with Congress and pulled back the sharing of important readiness data. If Esper wants to signal a true change at the Pentagon, he would be wise to tackle all three issues early on.

When Congress confirmed Mattis in 2017, it waived the requirement that civilian secretaries of defense be seven years out of uniform. A few members of Congress were hesitant to confirm Mattis for that reason, but more were worried about a related and much larger issue spanning the previous two administrations: eroding civilian control of the military. In hindsight, it turns out that those concerns were warranted.

As former Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White characterized Mattis’s approach as secretary of defense, he brought a “warrior mindset” to the job—including from his deep experience as a general and from his time in uniform at U.S. Central Command. He viewed the release of information as a danger, because enemies could use it to threaten forces and undermine the mission, White said.

After Mattis’s confirmation, he quickly released a cascade of guidance about military openness that, as Seligman writes, curtailed “the release of information,” chided “officers he saw as divulging too much information,” scaled back the number and composition of reporters invited on his official travel, and a saw a decline in both on- and off-camera briefings.

But the changes were bigger and broader than that. He put out a new rule that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should limit appearances together. Testimony by senior officials to Congress was also restricted. More broadly, Mattis reversed years of policy and decided to make information about the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces classified. Basic information about current conflicts remains hidden, and reporting requirements on civilian casualties have been jettisoned.

As John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, put it, the new rules mean that “The Afghan people know which districts are controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban obviously know which districts they control. Our military knows it. Everybody in Afghanistan knows it. The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for all of this, and that’s the American taxpayer.”

Mattis’s secrecy even extended to the trivial. For unknown reasons, the Navy no longer publicizes its nominations of flag officers. And it is unclear why the JASON defense science advisory panel did not have its contract renewed this year by the Pentagon. This group of mostly scientists has been advising the Defense Department (and others) for nearly six decades, providing independent technical assessments of issues such as nuclear weapons and lasers.

Mattis’s most detrimental directive, though, was for the Pentagon to keep readiness statistics to itself. After years of notable declines in readiness, in the summer of 2017, there were two fatal Navy ship collisions in the Pacific. A grim statistic caught Congress’ attention: More troops were dying in so-called peacetime incidents than during active hostilities or combat.

Congress worked with U.S. President Donald Trump to boost defense spending for three straight years. Yet Mattis still directed the services to share less information about the military’s readiness. Per Mattis’s spokesman at the time:

“Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation. Know that [Mattis] is well aware of our readiness shortfalls, as are our elected leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They don’t need news stories to remind them.”

Another rationale was to avoid disheartening the troops, but the government’s show of public confidence probably doesn’t convince many service members that the declines they see in flying hours, spare parts, and maintenance don’t exist or aren’t a problem. Similarly, Chinese and Russian leaders don’t need to comb public statements to understand trends in U.S. military readiness. They have sophisticated intelligence operations, including overhead imagery, constant offensive cyberattacks, and old-fashioned human intelligence.

By contrast, U.S. lawmakers remain in the dark. There are, of course, positive stories to promote about improving statistics across the services. But the rosy picture of increasing readiness presented by the Pentagon to Congress is still questionable. Air Force documents show that mission-capable rates remain inadequate. Meanwhile, the force has announced an operational pause to combat an unacceptably high suicide rate. Fewer than 10 B-1B bombers are combat-ready. Both the Navy and Army aviation wings face funding shortfalls of over $100 million each that directly harm the United States’ fleet of aircraft. Without ready planes, pilots quickly lose their status to fly.

A Pentagon report meant to detail how the military used its funding increase in 2018 contains a few lines on readiness improvements. And a review of the spotty readiness information conveyed to Congress this past spring shows a quantitative and qualitative decrease in readiness statistics. Meanwhile, troublesome stories about overburdened forces continue to leak out.

The Pentagon’s increasingly tight grip on information has led to a pernicious culture shift at the Defense Department. Secrecy breeds mistrust, cynicism, and anger that will affect officers and officials for many years to come.

To be fair, as the National Defense Strategy Commission and others have noted, the decline in transparency began long before Mattis was secretary of defense. But plenty of observers also agree that the trend has accelerated in recent years. The question now is how much Esper can learn the lessons of the past few years and translate them into reform.

An organization that actively works against openness will have few partners when things go south, especially in the legislative branch where the proverbial bread is buttered. A military with so many leaders in less than two years that is trying hard to improve readiness while implementing an ambitious new strategy—which asks the Pentagon to prepare for great power competition and conflict with China and Russia, all while defending the nation against Iran, North Korea, terrorists, and more—needs friends, and not just in government.

Changing the strategic direction of a large nation requires a shift in public opinion, and the Pentagon has not done much to make a convincing case to Americans. A strategy is not something to simply be asserted. As Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher told Defense News, “It is precisely because of the scale of the challenges before us that transparency is more important than ever. I worry that by failing to discuss problems, we will only ensure there is no public pressure to fix them.”

The U.S. armed forces have many good stories to tell. Whether it’s about missions that affect the daily lives of regular Americans, bleeding-edge technology, or the vagaries of serving, the U.S. public craves information about its armed forces. Congress needs it to do its job of oversight. But it cannot open a locked Pentagon door. Esper will need to proactively reopen the books and create a department-wide culture of welcoming sunshine and transparency again.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She has served as a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission and the National Defense Panel.