WASHINGTON ― Amid congressional pressure, the Pentagon says its next annual report detailing the shortfalls and progress of the Pentagon’s weapons programs will be made public in full.
The Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation office reversed course after drawing fire from Congress and transparency advocates for relegating information about failures of the F-35 fighter and other major weapons programs to a “controlled unclassified” edition last year for Congress and internal Defense Department use only.
In response to a Defense News query, the Pentagon said the DOT&E office will release in late January an “unclassified, publicly releasable report,” as it did prior to 2022. “As a result, yes it will, qualitatively, be more like the 2020 version,” released in 2021, which included critical details, Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
The reports provide lawmakers and taxpayers a rare window into the performance of some of the Pentagon’s costliest programs. In years past, they have contained detailed assessments about the deficiencies and progress of the military’s most problem-plagued acquisitions, but lawmakers and advocates charged last year the Pentagon’s top tester had excluded meaningful information from the public version.
It remains to be seen what details DOT&E will include in its next report, but the Project on Government Oversight’s Dan Grazier on Thursday greeted the news with a mix of optimism and skepticism. A return to the DOT&E’s longstanding practice of releasing a detailed public report, he said, would restore some transparency and public accountability, as the federal government more broadly trends in the opposite direction.
“I’m very interested to see what the report looks like because there’s a very good chance that the unclassified version of the testing report will look like the one we saw last year” and lack crucial details, Grazier said. A return to more comprehensive public disclosures would mean “being able to exert public pressure on the services, on Congress, on defense contractors to deliver weapons systems that are effective and suitable to warfighters.”
Grazier last year obtained and made public the version of the report labeled “controlled unclassified information,” a designation that falls short of classification but still requires limits on how a document can be distributed. Among the findings were that lagging availability rates, flareups of new software problems, and a stubborn number of open deficiencies in 2021 plagued the troubled and repeatedly delayed multibillion-dollar F-35 fighter program.
The public version of the report did not go into as much detail as the CUI version. For example, it did not include the number of F-35s actually ready to perform missions or which variants performed better than others. And while the public version disclosed deficiencies requiring software modifications and additional time and resources, the non-public version said communication and navigation, cybersecurity and targeting technology all had deficiencies.
Raymond O’Toole, then the acting head of the DOT&E office, said in 2021 he was producing dual reports to protect sensitive information. “I thought it very important to provide Congress and the Secretary the test evaluation details that shouldn’t wind up in our adversaries’ hands, hence the new CUI version of the annual report,” he was quoted as saying by Breaking Defense.
Nickolas Guertin subsequently became the chief of DOT&E.
The Pentagon’s potential overuse of the CUI designation more broadly has been seen persistent criticism from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.. Lawmakers, on a bipartisan basis, made it a focus of provisions in the $1.7 trillion government funding bill and mammoth defense policy bill, both signed by President Joe Biden last month.
“We’ve been very frustrated because when it comes to ‘secret’ and above, there’s certain rules, and it’s very cut and dried, but for CUI there’s no rhyme or reason,” said a Republican congressional aide who wasn’t permitted to discuss the issue publicly. “The CUI problem is a real problem because there is no process governing it.”
The funding bill orders a Pentagon report to Congress in 30 days on the use of CUI, given “concern that the extensive use of CUI will result in less transparency, accountability, and congressional oversight.”
The annual defense policy bill, citing “the over-classification of entire documents,” orders the top Pentagon officials for intelligence and research and engineering to boost guidance and training for the consistent use of CUI, all by 2029.
“We understand the Department of Defense’s uneven application of CUI markings is particularly problematic for industry, which often receives little CUI training or guidance from the government and is unsure of its responsibilities regarding this marking convention,” the bill reads.
The Pentagon’s top spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, told reporters Thursday that the Defense Department strives to balance between transparency and safeguarding sensitive non-public information and takes Congress’s direction seriously.
The CUI category was created by a 2010 executive order, and subsequent Pentagon guidance bans its use to conceal violations, inefficiency, administrative error or information that’s embarrassing to a person or agency, Ryder said.
“In any large bureaucracy, you’re going to be challenged sometimes, but we will work very hard to try to be as transparent as we can when it comes to public information related to the DoD,” Ryder said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.