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Pentagon juggles transparency, obfuscation in COVID-19 age

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) move meals, ready to eat (MREs) on April 7, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julio Rivera/U.S. Navy/TNS)

As the coronavirus spreads through the ranks of the Defense Department, one major challenge that has emerged for the Pentagon is how much information to divulge about the health of the troops.

The Pentagon maintains it is being as transparent as possible about the outbreak, and provides daily updates on total cases across the department. It draws the line, however, at providing specific figures at the unit, installation or even the large combatant command level, citing the need for “operational security” — Pentagon speak for not letting the enemy know your plans or weak points.

But operational security is invoked so often by defense officials that it has become nearly impossible for the public to judge its validity.

And with COVID-19, there is risk to life on both sides of the familiar tension between transparency and operational security. Sharing details about every case could provide America’s adversaries with enough data to encourage them to strike at a perceived weakness if it becomes public knowledge that a certain outpost has been crippled by the illness. Staying quiet about infection rates, however, could expose families and portside communities when military personnel go on leave or rotate home.

The key, said Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Defense secretary under President Barack Obama, is not to try to minimize the issue or try to finesse it.

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“It’s far better to take initiative, step into it, and just be honest,” said Hagel, who also served two terms in the Senate. “Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t mess around with it. It never ends up well unless you’re completely transparent.”

On March 30, well into the COVID-19 outbreak in America and weeks after many communities adopted stay-at-home policies, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah issued a statement explaining the department’s approach to keeping the public informed. The Pentagon would provide department- and service-wide confirmed COVID-19 cases daily, and say whether they were service members, civilians, families or contractors. Commanders were instructed to keep local health officials up to date on positive cases. But the department would not provide detailed figures about military personnel in specific locations.

“As we confront this growing crisis, and out of a concern for operational security with regard to readiness, we will not report the aggregate number of individual service member cases at individual unit, base or Combatant Commands,” Farah said.

Combatant commands are how the Pentagon divides up the world, and they often correspond to entire continents, like Europe Command or Africa Command and often include tens of thousands of troops. Some are much larger, like Indo-Pacific Command, and some are less defined by geography, like Cyber Command or Space Command.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Defense Department leaders didn’t want adversaries to consider attacking U.S. forces based on detailed COVID-19 information. Even the smallest bits of information can be aggregated and used to develop clear intelligence pictures to trained enemy intelligence operatives, he said.

“Our adversaries employ trained intelligence agents who are constantly watching everything we do to build intelligence estimates of our readiness,” Hoffman told CQ Roll Call. “For example, sharing information about a major outbreak at a key strategic base — a missile, bomber, boomer (nuclear submarine), or special forces base — could embolden an adversary by presenting a false picture of impacted readiness. Similarly, information aggregated about our forward deployed forces could directly place our forces at risk by encouraging enemy action.”

But in at least one highly publicized incident, COVID-19 forced the Pentagon’s hand. On March 24, then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly and Adm. Michael Gilday, the Navy’s top uniformed officer, announced that three sailors had been flown off the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier based in the Pacific.

This was the first incidence of COVID-19 found on a warship that was underway, as opposed to docked pier side. Gilday made it clear that he would have preferred not to go into detail about the cases on board the Roosevelt, but they were already public knowledge.

“In the case of the Roosevelt, the story’s out there and we’re being transparent with answering the questions,” he said, but the Navy would prefer not to provide information about a strategic asset.

Eventually, the Roosevelt’s commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote a letter pleading with Navy leadership to take the outbreak on the ship more seriously. The letter leaked, causing a media firestorm, and the Roosevelt was forced to return to port in Guam to move most of the ship’s 4,865 sailors onto land where they would not be in such close quarters.

“Let me emphasize that this is exactly what we want our commanding officers, our medical teams to do,” Modly told reporters on April 1, after Crozier’s letter was published. “We need a lot of transparency, in this process, and we want that information to flow up through the chain of command.”

On the following day, Modly fired Crozier. Modly then flew across the world to deliver a disjointed and angry address to the Roosevelt’s crew, in which he called their beloved former captain “stupid.” Less than 48 hours later, Modly resigned after lawmakers expressed disbelief at Modly’s conduct.

As of April 14, the Roosevelt accounts for more than half of the Navy’s 950 COVID-19 cases. Driven in part by the outbreak on the carrier, the Navy has more than a third of the Defense Department’s 2,618 active duty cases. A member of the Roosevelt’s crew died in a Guam hospital on April 13 from a COVID-19-related illness after having been found unresponsive days earlier, the first death among active duty personnel.

“Obviously the Roosevelt case was a fiasco,” said Hagel. “It was an abject failure of senior leadership from the top down.”

Thanks to technology, it’s almost certain that word of the outbreak on the Roosevelt had already reached the crew’s families and loved ones by the time the Navy acknowledged the coronavirus cases on board, said David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served as a public affairs officer in the Pentagon and press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.

“The days of what happens on base stays on base are long gone,” said Lapan, who is vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “If organizations don’t take care of people and provide information, it’s going to get out by other means.”

It’s understandable that service members concerned about their own health and well-being would communicate those concerns to their families, particularly because of the risk that they could pass along the virus to them, he said.

Alice Hunt Friend, a former Defense Department policy official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that even large crews like the Roosevelt’s are capable of keeping sensitive information to themselves, such as mission, destination and route.

But in the case of a global pandemic, it’s not realistic for the Defense Department to expect it can keep outbreaks under wraps, she said, “not only because those service members have families and there are surrounding communities. It’s going to make itself obvious because it could become a hotspot.”

Friend is sympathetic to the Pentagon’s desire to control certain information to minimize risk to service members in harm’s way, but is unconvinced that invoking operational security is the right way to address COVID-19.

Operational security is “not a catch-all term for anything under the sun that we would prefer not to have scrutinized,” she said.

Part of the issue is that thanks to President Donald Trump’s freewheeling approach to facts, particularly related to COVID-19, this administration has lost credibility with the public, and the Pentagon is not immune to that, Lapan said.

“In the past, you might have trusted the Department of Defense with withholding certain information for reasons; now people question when they make blanket statements about operational security,” he said. “If you use this over and over for everything, people question what’s true and what’s not, what’s being used as an excuse or cover versus valid uses of the term.”

There is an over-emphasis by the Defense Department on not releasing information, stemming in part from not wanting to run afoul of Trump, who can be unpredictable, said Friend.

“I think that’s where this particular round of transparency issues at DOD comes from,” she said, citing past incidents where Trump intervened in the military justice process to set aside convictions and accusations, later firing Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer over his role in defending military justice. “When the (Defense Department) attracts Trump’s attention, it often ends up in controversies it loses control of.”

For two years, Trump’s first Defense secretary, James Mattis, largely ignored the press or stuck to repeating his talking points over and over, and defense officials learned to follow suit. In current Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper’s Pentagon, “operational security” has replaced Mattis’ “lethality” as the building’s byword, a way of sounding vaguely authoritative while evading additional scrutiny.

The Defense Department would project more strength if it acknowledged its challenges with the coronavirus outbreak and reminded America’s allies and adversaries that it has many other assets it can bring to bear, said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

During World War II, many American GIs and sailors came down with malaria, but that didn’t stop the military from defeating Japan, she noted.

“We might as well be who we are as a political culture, and put all the information out there,” she said. “Instead of saying, our adversaries might know that we have weaknesses, acknowledge our weaknesses and our ability to meet our obligations and secure our interests despite them.”

Hagel, the former Defense secretary, agreed, noting that the U.S. military has many built-in redundancies that help keep it operating efficiently and effectively, even when some of its assets are not available.

“We can carry out our national security responsibilities, and we will, and I doubt there’s any country in the world that doubts that,” Hagel said. “You do have to be honest about the realities that you’re dealing with. You’re not going to kid anybody.”

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© 2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.