Washington: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has moved to gag communications between the Pentagon and Congress on the highly sensitive issue of the congressional Super Committee.
In an Aug. 18 memo to all senior officials, Panetta ordered them to “coordinate any contact with the ‘Super Committee’ through his assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Elizabeth King.
We sent a copy of the memo to the House and Senate Armed Services committees, and some other congressional sources, for comment. It being mid-August on a Friday we were happy to hear from the HASC’s spokesman.
“The Committee certainly understands why Secretary Panetta would want to have visibility on such a vital issue. However, every senior member of our Armed Forces, including the chiefs of staff for every service; swear to support Congress’ oversight role with their unvarnished professional opinion as part of the Senate confirmation process. A memo from the Secretary of Defense is not sufficient to relieve them of that obligation,” spokesman Claude Chafin said in an email.
The secretary’s spokesman rejected the idea that this memo constituted any kind of gag. “It’s simply wrong to suggest that the Secretary is restricting communication with Congress on budget matters. The point of this memorandum is solely to ensure that the Department adopts an orderly approach to our engagement with Congress on these important issues. That’s called sound management, and we look forward to discussing future national security funding with the Hill,” George Little said in a very promptly returned email.
While we understand the desire to “manage” the process, when you order people to stop talking to someone else, that’s a gag order. Of course, the Pentagon isn’t a democracy, but unvarnished advice and information must flow between the Congress and the military for both to work effectively. And restricting who can communicate is pretty likely to mean the advice won’t be unvarnished.