One lesson learned from the current pandemic is: The more transparency across government, the better. It was, after all, Beijing’s suppression of information about the outbreak in Wuhan, China, that fostered the rapid global spread of the disease.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon has now submitted a legislative proposal that would move the U.S. toward the Chinese model of defense opacity. It wants to make its Future Years Defense Program, or FYDP, a classified document. Not only will this reduce the ability of the government to collaborate with the private sector, but it will exacerbate an existing problem: over-classification of data.
Curiously, just how the public got hold of this proposal is symptomatic of the Pentagon’s desire to tightly control its data. Until fiscal 2019, the Defense Department publicized its legislative package on the website of its Office of Legislative Counsel. That is no longer the case. Instead, this odious proposal was first made public by the Federation of American Scientists.
The scientists pointed out that the gist of the proposal was to hide the Pentagon’s future-years plan from the public eye. The plan indicates where the department aims to go with future budgets. It provides important details like how many ships it intends to buy in a couple of years, or that it intends to start production of a capability currently in research and development.
The legislative proposal would remove the requirement for publicizing an unclassified version of the plan and eliminate the need for the Pentagon comptroller to certify the accuracy on the data submitted. The bid to deep-six the certification requirement is just plain puzzling. Why would the department not guarantee the accuracy of its own data? Military comptrollers should be able to certify the accuracy of the data that their departments produce.
But the big issue is the move to classify the plan itself. This would undermine national defense in two major ways: by making it harder for the defense-industrial base to plan and by making it harder for the analytic community to do its job.
The defense-industrial base is a collection of private sector companies that make independent decisions based on government and nongovernment signals and data. They must respond to both their government customers and their shareholders. The future-years plan offers information that can guide decisions about which areas defense companies should emphasize or de-emphasize to remain relevant in the future defense market. That information is necessarily part of the calculus that those companies present to their shareholders to justify their investments.
Washington is littered with studies, reports and opinion pieces on how private sector engagement and innovation will be the key in the current great power competition. Putting the future-years plan behind lock and key would make this cooperation more difficult — and the Pentagon an even worse customer than it already is (something some would have thought impossible).
National defense in the United States is a team sport. It involves multiple players with differing levels of expertise — from top-secret laboratories and Pentagon officials to independent experts, legislative staffers and the media. All are on the same team, working to keep our country secure. When one player unnecessarily keeps information from the others, the whole team suffers. It is harder for outside analysts and reporters to do their job when there is less data available. Congressional oversight becomes more challenging as well.
This latest move is a part of broader tendency toward restricting data from the public. In the last few years, the Pentagon has classified data on provincial control in Afghanistan, further classified data on acquisition reports and canceled the report on civilian casualties on drone strikes, just to name a few.
To be fair, there has been some movement toward transparency. For instance, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his leadership team have spent more time in front of reporters, reversing the trend under Secretary Jim Mattis. But the tide still runs in the opposite direction.
Finally, the Pentagon’s core reason for the proposal reads more like a reason to rethink the classification process rather than to further classify data: “The Department is concerned that attempting publication of unclassified FYDP data might inadvertently reveal sensitive information.” When it becomes challenging to parse out classified from unclassified data, the move should be to rethink the classification system, not to throw hands in the air and lock up everything.
As Beijing’s hack of government employees’ data shows, the Chinese have no problem accessing sensitive data from the United States government. The Pentagon’s move would only hide more data from the American public, not from our adversaries.
Defense Department officials like to talk about the need for stable, predictable, adequate and timely budgets. In our democratic system, hiding data through over-classification is a recipe for failure on all four of those counts.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr (ret.) is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Frederico Bartels is the think tank’s top policy analyst for defense budgeting.