It’s been more than 300 days since the Pentagon held an on-camera press briefing, a problem that became hugely salient in recent weeks with the announcement from the White House that it was deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East. Was this a new deployment, beyond what the Pentagon announced in early April? The Navy called it a “regularly scheduled deployment,” so what was going on with the White House announcing it, and doing so on a Sunday?
As Kate Brannen writes at Just Security, the White House’s bellicose announcement demanded rigorous questioning, but there was nowhere to ask these questions on the record. In fact, at the time of the announcement, there wasn’t even a secretary of Defense nominee. Meanwhile, Trump is deploying troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, rattling sabers in Venezuela, is at sea with North Korea, and has banned transgender recruits, just to name a handful of things. It has become, Brannen says “increasingly difficult for reporters to ask officials about these moves on the record, on camera, and on behalf of the American public.”
So there’s a lot we’re simply in the dark about, like how dangerous is Iraq right now for American troops because of Trump’s belligerence? The Central Command warned against this previously, but there’s no report from the Pentagon on either CENTCOM’s current view of the situation or the threat assessment there. We don’t even know if there have been any recent attacks there on U.S. forces. The Pentagon is apparently no longer keeping track of the territory in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban versus the government and we don’t know why, or how the Defense Department is making decisions on military operations there.
What about ISIS? Where’s it at and what is it doing? And how many troops are actually in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, and what are they doing? Is there any plan for withdrawing them and if so, what’s the timeline? Trump likes to say all the time ISIS is defeated but what does the Defense Department say? We don’t know. They won’t tell the public. And North Korea? Do we have any contingency plans if Trump’s beautiful relationship with Kim doesn’t work out? Why did the effort to repatriate Americans’ remains from the Korean War end? We don’t know, and the Defense Department isn’t saying.
There’s also been no public assessment of what Trump’s insistence on “getting tough” on the southern border of the U.S. means. What are the forces being deployed there being told about how they work with refugees? What does it mean to force readiness to shift the DoD’s focus there? And what is the transgender ban doing to readiness or morale, considering there are 14,000 transgender military personnel serving?
Who knows? Until last week, there wasn’t even a permanent Defense secretary nominated. As far as anyone knows there’s still a communications staff in the DoD, but they don’t have much of a job any more. Granted, having to answer for Trump on all these national security issues would be a horrifying job, but somebody’s got to do it.