Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Should defense strategy documents be classified?

As Shawn Brimley and Loren DeJonge Shulman explain,  Congress is rewriting the rules for the development of defense strategy documents. The House wants to see more of the internal guidance directives and the Senate wants the Pentagon to do an annual strategy report, but keep it classified when sent to the Hill.

The authors prefer the Senate approach and make an interesting case for keeping it classified:

Between both of us, we have participated in all the most recent Pentagon strategy reviews, and are rather pleased by the strong prospect of reform in how the Pentagon conducts strategic reviews. As discussed in our first column, one of the major drawbacks with the QDR process has been the tendency for the Pentagon to develop it as an unclassified expression of the national defense strategy — this is, we believe, the root of its perceived failure as a core driver of actual Pentagon strategy. While most of the meetings, analysis, and war-gaming that undergirds any QDR are classified, the time and attention taken to produce a public document targeted to the American people, allies, partners, and even potential adversaries, virtually ensures that the QDR as a document is unable to be employed inside the Pentagon as a key lever for the secretary of defense. Moreover, while other classified strategy documents are developed (annual program guidance, biannual contingency planning guidance, etc.) that draw from the classified analysis used to produce QDRs, the unclassified nature of the final document virtually ensures that a tremendous amount of manpower and senior-leader bandwidth was employed in waging semantic battles to translate classified analysis to unclassified rhetoric, and then often to translate the final unclassified report back into useful classified guidance. We don’t think this was the most useful way for senior Pentagon leaders or their expert staff to spend their time, nor was it apparently all that useful for the secretary of defense (we’ve asked around).
I can certainly appreciate the time wasted in semantic battles because people knew the words would be made public. But given the propensity for leaks, I'm not sure that this is a durable solution. But it's worth a try.

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