The Washington Post has a problem. How should it handle one of its most important leakers of inside government information — a person it exposed — considering that its treatment of him might discourage future leaks from other high-level government officials?
That problem is Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified last week before the Senate and House oversight committees regarding his role in the Afghanistan retreat from Kabul and two earlier secret phone calls.
As a new book titled Peril by Post celebrity reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed — with splashy front page coverage — the general made surreptitious phone calls to the top Chinese Liberation Army general, Li Zuocheng. Milley reportedly promised the U.S. would not attack China, adding, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time.”
Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius explained Milley’s purpose in alerting and making this promise to a foreign power was “to calm Chinese fears that [President Donald] Trump might take rash military action” against them. Ignatius justified this action by the president’s “chief military advisor” because “he feared that Trump would use a violent crisis at home or abroad to draw the military into his machinations to retain power.” Milley “was determined to prevent this politicization of the military, and the nation owes him a debt of thanks for his vigilance.”
Still, Ignatius had to concede that “Milley’s efforts also took him into dangerous constitutional terrain that no soldier should have to patrol, edging close to violating the sacrosanct principle of civilian control of the military.” Ignatius also called “unusual” Milley’s “pledge” at the same time to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy “Pelosi and other U.S. officials to restrain any unlawful or improper actions by the commander in chief,” that is, restrain the U.S. president.
“So Milley’s case presents a paradox,” decides Ignatius. “The nation benefited from the actions he took, but they also threaten to set a dangerous precedent. It’s crucial now to use that lesson to rebuild and reinforce the traditional civilian-military structure that was damaged, like so many parts of our national life, during Trump’s presidency.”
Ignatius then proceeds to make the case for Milley, noting that his “detractors have focused on his Oct. 30, 2020, and Jan. 8 telephone calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng,” but arguing that this “criticism is misplaced. Military-to-military contacts to ‘deconflict’ crises are common and essential.” Yes, they are — but not to make promises about actions specifically removed from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ authority in the 1986 change in the law that took him out of the military chain of command.
The chairman was specifically removed from giving commands to military troops and the book reports that he called together the key military officers regarding procedures for launching nuclear weapons. He conceded that the authority there was given to the president but told them that if they were ordered to launch that “he, Milley, also had to be involved.” “Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood,” the authors write, in what he considered an “oath” by them to do so.
According to the book, Milley also promised Pelosi that “he would prevent any misuse of the military,” again seeming to flaunt that law. And he did so to a president’s main political opponent. To justify this, Ignatius claims that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, and CIA Director Gina Haspel also placed “guardrails” to limit Trump’s supposed excesses. But they did not promise to override the president and seemed to mostly just be maneuvering through public disagreements.
Milley’s mainstream media supporters basically justify all of this as necessary for the unique threat to the nation, the great evil person Ignatius calls the “lawless president” Donald Trump. Even considering this was a reasonable fear, however, why did Milley not inform the person who was actually in the chain of command, the defense secretary? This is the true issue and why Milley’s actions according to the book would be a serious offense. Ignatius hardly mentions the then secretary, dismissing him as “inexperienced.” Another justifier at the Atlantic dismisses him by saying he was unaware of much of what was happening below him, which Milley apparently proved by going around him.
Milley originally claimed he cleared his call to the Chinese top officer through the chain of command, referencing the earlier call, but backtracked on the second after this was denied by that official. In his Senate testimony, Milley claimed that on the critical second Li Zuocheng call, he went through the Acting Defense Secretary but used the term through his “staff,” which is not quite the same thing. He did say he informed the Acting Secretary subsequently, but what he precisely said is not clear.
Who was this Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller, this supposed inexperienced incompetent? He was a graduate of the Naval and Army War Colleges, began his service as an enlisted man in the Army Reserve in 1982, and was commissioned as an ROTC officer in 1987 at George Washington University. In 1993, he transferred to Special Forces and retired as a United States Army Special Forces colonel in 2014. In 2018, he served as special assistant to the president and National Security Council Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and finally as Acting Secretary of Defense on November 9, 2020.
Consider Milley’s state of mind at the time. Peril claims that after the January 6 riots, Milley compared them to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, said it was a “Reichstag moment,” and called the crowd Hitler “Brownshirts.” Ignatius himself noted that Milley’s “big fear” about the military being seen as acting in politically sensitive matters contributed to his refusal to support providing military forces before the January 6 demonstrations, which had the effect of weakening the ability to control the rioting crowds.
Even if Peril and Ignatius are accurate that Milley’s defense was that Trump was so evil that he could ignore the law that specifically removed him from the chain of command, he had other options. He could have resigned. He could then organize a public 25th Amendment process to remove the president. In testimony, Milley admitted he was not in the chain of command but considered himself to be in some amorphous “chain of communication” and denied he was usurping the president or Secretary. If resignation was too painful, he could have at least gone to Secretary Miller directly, who no one has claimed is evil (perhaps flawed but that would cover pretty much anyone).
Prestige media outlets like the Post advance their political power by developing key contacts in the bureaucracy who will leak inside government secrets. So, it is not surprising that media will defend their top sources. Milley has admitted to talking to the media and is widely recognized as a cultivator of media favor. But the fact that the mainstream media ignore or justify the essential facts in the Milley case — as they themselves present them — to support a political bias against the previous president suggests that any future general could get away with military superiority over civilian officials without a peep simply if the media did not like the president who was being usurped.
As the Post has reported it, if Milley’s promise to China, Pelosi, and others, and his action of telling commanders in the chain of command to advise him outside that chain does not constitute the end of civilian control of the military, I cannot imagine what set of facts could be so designated.
If the facts are as reported and there are no consequences for Milley, we deserve the results. For the military’s own good order and for the critical importance to the nation of a military based on civilian control, public censure is the minimum requisite for a future free press and free nation.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books, America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.