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Pentagon experiences communications breakdown

The Hill logo The Hill 4/21/2017 Ellen Mitchell
Pentagon experiences communications breakdown © Provided by The Hill Pentagon experiences communications breakdown

The Pentagon is having a communications problem.

On two separate occasions this month, the military has sent out information that was either misleading or unauthorized.

In the first instance, the Defense Department failed to correct claims from the White House and runaway media reports that an aircraft carrier was headed toward North Korea in a show of force after that country tested a new missile.

In the second instance, U.S. Central Command walked back unusually blunt statements to The Hill about the use of the "Mother of All Bombs" in Afghanistan.

The breakdowns threaten to become a political problem for the administration, with the CENTCOM flap in particular catching the attention of liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

"We're not sure who to trust when we get an explanation about it," she said April 14 on The Rachel Maddow Show.

On Wednesday, Maddow wrote a tweetstorm on the topic, arguing that CENTCOM "never explained who it was that gave that statement as if they were a spokesman."

She also pointed out that the command's release on unauthorized statements was not on the usual site where CENTCOM posts its press announcements.

"Now we've got a DOD statement that someone said things to a reporter that DOD disavows, but we don't know who the person was. . . Nor do we know the circumstances of why or how someone was pretending to be a CENTCOM spokesman for a day."

While some turbulence is typical for any new administration, it is possible that understaffing and miscommunications between the White House and various departments is making life tougher for the Pentagon under President Trump.

"It appears that DOD is trying to work out the kinks in collaborating on messaging with the White House in real time," said Owen Daniels of the Atlantic Council.

"DOD is in the position of reacting to the news cycle and White House statements, which could be a side effect of understaffing. It's also possible that DPD is trying to minimize its contradiction of the WH where possible to project unified, consistent messaging to both partners and adversaries."

That appeared to be the case this week, when it was revealed the USS Carl Vinson strike group, including the air craft carrier and two guided missile destroyers, was not where it was said it would be.

The Navy had announced on April 9 that the strike group would skip a regularly scheduled port visit in Australia and instead head to the western Pacific Ocean. The statement did not explicitly say the Vinson would head immediately to the Korean Peninsula, but administration officials later suggested it would.

Mattis told reporters on April 11 that the Vinson was "on her way up there," and President Trump added to the perception when he told Fox Business News on April 12, "We are sending an armada, very powerful."

The New York Times reported that the confusion was a result of a "glitch-ridden sequence of events" that included a premature announcement of the deployment from the Navy and an incorrect statement from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Mattis on Wednesday blamed the mixup on an effort to be transparent.

Comments from the so-called CENTCOM spokesman, meanwhile, regarding the use of MOAB - comments that were publicly disowned by the command last week - seem to point to a rogue statement by an individual, Daniels said.

But Daniels added that the use of such language "could point to institutional unclarity on how best to communicate effectively the new administration's strategy."

A senior congressional staff member also blamed the disorder on a deficit of political appointees that should be in place to coordinate with the White House on routine messages.

"I've been telling people 'nobody's home' at DOD," the staff member told The Hill. "The acting officials and military folks can do the day-to-day stuff, but I don't think they see their job as being policy operatives for the new administration, so I can see how things are breaking down when there's a crisis of some kinds."

Mattis remains the only Pentagon nominee to make it through the Senate confirmation process, and Trump has 52 additional positions to fill.

"That is unprecedented by itself, and a symptom of the overall chaos," the staff member said.

Another huge problem, one defense lobbyist told The Hill, is conflict between the new Pentagon head and the White House.

"Friction between Mattis and the White House has led to less communication," the lobbyist said. "The political people care about not embarrassing the president. The career people don't. But there aren't any political people around Mattis, and no one else has been confirmed for political positions in the Department."

The implications go far beyond just a simple miscommunication, the lobbyist added.

"All of the Trump administration's major national security policy positions are lost in this shuffle because there is no one there to implement them and communicate them to Congress," the lobbyist said.

"Where is the new National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy?  Where are the new policy proposals on increasing missile defense, improving readiness and increasing the size of the military to meet the threats we face around the globe?  The day-to-day communication about ongoing programs continues with the program offices. It's the big policy stuff that is getting lost."

In the wake of the two public communication snafus, the Pentagon has vowed to improve its messaging moving forward.

"This is what transparency looks like. It's our responsibility to be as clear and open with the American people as possible," Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana White said in a statement to The Hill.

"We could have been clearer, and we will strive to be so in the future."

Daniels, meanwhile, said he predicts that bureaucrats will try to respond quickly to developments in order to pre-empt commentary from the White House or Trump himself via statements made on air or on Twitter.

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