ARLINGTON, Va. — Two lawmakers who oversee defense policy took aim at a years-long walk-back of U.S. Navy transparency, calling on the Navy to declassify ship inspection results and end an information chill spurred by U.S. Navy and Defense Department memos over the past year.
The head of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee in remarks at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium called on the Navy to declassify Board of Inspection and Survey inspections, known as INSURV, arguing that transparency would put needed pressure on the Navy to fix longstanding issues.
“We have recently classified INSURVs, and during peacetime the question is: Do we really need to do that?” said Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va. “Shouldn’t there be some transparency there so that we understand what is necessary for those ships? ... I think that during peacetime, INSURVs should be unclassified so that we know what’s going on, an ability for all of us to understand what needs to happen and make sure we stay on that strict cycle of three years.”
The Navy classified the results of INSURV in 2009 and has taken intermittent heat for the decision since. The call from the Seapower chairman will renew the debate about whether the Navy is seeking to make poor inspection results inaccessible to avoid public scrutiny.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., in remarks following Wittman slammed a memo from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson calling on the U.S. Navy to be more careful in discussions of military capabilities with the media.
In a March 1 document, Richardson called on leaders to be more careful with what events to speak at and avoid talking about too many specifics.
“When it comes to specific operational capabilities, however, very often less is more,” Richardson wrote. “Now more than ever, it is important that public communication about our forces, their operations, and their capabilities, even at the unclassified level, makes it easier for potential adversaries to gain an advantage. Scrutinize information and protect it.”
But Gallagher said he didn’t buy the argument, and called on the Navy to change course “at the highest levels.”
“I read with great concern public reporting of a memo from last March that focused on the ‘less is more’ approach to strategic communications,” Gallagher, a member of Wittman’s Seapower subcommittee, said in his prepared remarks.
“Despite the old adage that ‘loose lips sink ships,’ non-existent strategic communications can sink entire navies,” he continued. “If the bias is towards silence to prevent adversaries from finding out about unique capabilities or potential weaknesses, guess what, there will never be a public constituency for acquiring or mitigating them. And, oh by the way, our adversaries probably have a decent idea of what we’re up to anyways.”
Gallagher argued that he needs his constituents to understand what the Navy needs and why.
“There’s a very easy way to measure our success here,” he continued. “I want to hear pressure from my constituents about key Navy priorities. I want my colleagues to get calls and letters and office visits about Navy issues.”
The powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee also weighed in on the subject in a gaggle with reporters Wednesday. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters that the Department of Defense needed to be more open so that he can convince his colleagues on the Hill and his constituents that fixing DoD’s issues is a priority.
“As we’ve talked before, some of the folks in DoD are reluctant to talk too openly about our shortfalls because you’re broadcasting that to your potential adversaries,” Thornberry said. “And I admit, it’s a fine balance. But if we’re going to convince my colleagues who are not on this committee, as well as the American people, to fix these things, I think we do have to at least talk somewhat openly about what our problems are.”
Richardson took heated questioning from a reporter on the issue of his March memo the previous day, asking if secrecy ever created an effective deterrent for an adversary. Richardson argued they may still be struggling with finding the right balance.
“We might be searching for the right things to talk about, right, because my sense was that we talk to much about it openly,” he said. “Just figuring out how do we change this dialogue? So I want to talk less about military capabilities or find the right way to cast those so that they have the deterrent effect that you have without allowing potential adversaries to reverse engineer or come up with ways to defeat those technologies or warfighting concepts.”
When asked to address the chilling effect his memo has had in both the service and industry, Richardson dismissed it.
“If we talk less about specific capabilities and concepts, I’m fine with that,”
Richardson’s position on sharing capabilities information with the public was seemingly supported by an Oct. 3 internal Defense Department memo sent by Defense Secretary James Mattis and reported by Military Times.
“It is a violation of our oath to divulge, in any fashion, non-public DoD information, classified or unclassified, to anyone without the required security clearance as well as a specific need to know in the performance of their duties,” Mattis wrote.
Both Mattis and Richardson have said they want their subordinates to speak with the media frequently. In the same memo, Richardson directed that his people not stop or slow down engagement with the media.
“I just ask that you give thought to the events in which you choose to participate and the type of information you are sharing,” he wrote. “As senior leaders its part of our job to look for opportunities to talk about the fantastic work our sailors and civilians do every day, and the role of the Navy in safeguarding our homeland, and protecting our national interests.”
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.