"Once the decision is made -- and particularly once the president signs off on the budget -- then there needs to be discipline about people not conducting guerrilla warfare against decisions the president has made… We have a chain of command and that's what it's all about."
-- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Pentagon Press briefings, April 6 and 7
With those chilling words, Defense Secretary Robert Gates let it be known that he will brook no dissent within the military over his decision to gut the defense budget by canceling and "restructuring" key weapon systems. But the inconvenient truth for Gates is that his directive flies in the face of Congress and the Constitution.
Gates has proposed the most significant weapon systems cuts since the Carter administration more than 30 years ago. Gates' cuts include the elimination of the Transformational Satellite program as well as the elimination of eight new Army combat vehicle types, all of which are integral to modernizing U.S. military capabilities for 21st-century irregular warfare.
Indeed, these cuts will have profound, deleterious and far-reaching effects on our fighting men and women. Shouldn't Congress get to hear what U.S. military leaders think about these cuts? Doesn't Congressional oversight responsibility demand a full and public vetting of the defense secretary's proposals?
Gates grudgingly acknowledges that the military service chiefs "can give their professional military advice to the Congress and to the president if they disagree with [his] decisions"; but all other military leaders, he says, better shut up.
"For everybody else," he told reporters on Apr. 7, "once I've made my decisions, and once the president has made his decisions, then that is the position of this department, and they are expected to execute those programs."
Military officials, of course, have to follow the law. But the supreme law is the Constitution of the United States, which protects free speech, and which vests funding authority and oversight responsibility with Congress.
As Gates well knows, "the Pentagon," so called, is not a monolith. It has 23,000 employees and hundreds of different chains of command. Consequently, there are a variety of different Pentagon viewpoints on myriad topics, including the defense budget.
In order for Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities, it must subpoena and swear under oath all key participants involved in Defense Department budget deliberations, including but not limited to the military service chiefs and senior three- and four-star Generals and Admirals.
This means, pace Gates, that many more people than just the military service chiefs ought to publicly testify before Congress. More than 100 Pentagon officials, after all, were involved in this year's secret Pentagon budget deliberations. The defense secretary has benefited from their analyses; so, too, should Congress and the American people.
That's what democracy and representative government are all about: an open and vigorous exchange of ideas. All points of view should be heard, so that the American people and their elected representatives can make wise and informed decisions about our defense budget.
If Gates is confident that his cuts are wise public policy, then he should welcome, not fear, a thorough and open examination of his proposals. In actuality, however, Gates knows that his cuts are problematic at best and cannot withstand serious Congressional scrutiny. That's why he's trying to preemptively censor military leaders.
"Generals and Admirals are afraid to speak in the climate created by Gates," Dr. Rebecca Grant, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, said to the Norfolk Examiner.
As Defense Secretary, Grant notes, "Gates has fired a service chief, [former Air Force General Michael Moseley]; two service secretaries, [former Army Secretary Francis Harvey and former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne]; and a combatant commander."
For internal Defense Department budget deliberations, Gates also forced uniformed military officers and civilian government employees to sign a secrecy oath. These are not actions that encourage free thought and open analysis by our nation's top military leaders; quite the contrary.
But Gates explicitly acknowledges that his weapon systems cuts are "controversial"; and he implicitly acknowledges that one or more members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff do not concur with his recommended cuts.
Gates also acknowledges that his "most difficult" decision was to eliminate all eight vehicle types in the Army's highly successful Future Combat Systems modernization program.
"The Army felt very strongly about it," he told reporters. "I spent a lot of time with [Army Chief of Staff] General Casey and [Army] Secretary Geren. [I spent] probably more time with them on this particular issue than on any other single issue with anybody else in the building."
Congress also needs to spend a lot of time with General Casey and Secretary Geren -- and with dozens of other top military leaders -- in open, public hearings. The integrity of American democracy and of our republican form of government demands transparency in decision-making and an informed and educated citizenry.