WASHINGTON — Unless Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets a legal requirement to explain where troops are deployed around the world, he’ll lose a quarter of his personal travel budget, according to a plan passed by the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.
During the panel’s markup of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the committee approved an amendment to fence off “25% of travel funds for the Office of the Secretary of Defense” until the Pentagon complies with a transparency requirement in the 2019 defense policy bill.
Under that law, the department must make a quarterly public report on the total numbers of military personnel deployed around the globe, both top-line totals and on a country-by-country basis. While the 2019 language does have some special cases that can receive waivers, the secretary is supposed to ask permission from Congress.
Put simply: members of Congress appear to feel Esper is not living up to his requirements under the law to explain where troops are deployed and are willing to take away some of his personal travel budget in order to prod him on the issue.
The amendment was introduced by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a veteran who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was teamed with Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who tweeted on Thursday that the move is an “important accountability measure” for the department.
The FY19 language came at a time that then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had implemented a crackdown on information sharing in the Pentagon, with what was once routine information to be shared with the public became opaque over concerns of operational security. One major issue during Mattis’ tenure was getting information about what forces were being deployed where, with force numbers in Syria and Afghanistan particularly tough to nail down.
It’s a policy that has continued, first under acting secretary Pat Shanahan and now Esper, who in January told reporters, “General Mattis had a policy: We just don’t talk specific troop numbers, where we have, wherever they are. So, I follow that.”
In an op-ed published at Task & Purpose, Porter and Crow argued that the argument troop numbers give an advantage to America’s enemies “doesn’t hold up to scrutiny” and that “There is nothing more fundamental to American democracy than the idea that the government must be answerable to the people.”
“This provision has been ignored by the Pentagon since it was signed into law by President Trump in 2018. This defiance of law cannot be countenanced,” the two members added.
Joe Gould and David B. Larter in Washington contributed to this report. This story was updated 7/2/20 at 3:06 PM EST to add comment from Porter and Crow.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.