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Analysis: The Pentagon has a credibility problem, and it’s only getting worse

The Defense Department’s waffling on casualties from Jan. 8 Iran strike latest in a growing trend

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrive for a briefing in Capitol Visitor Center for a closed-door briefing about Syria on Oct. 17. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief when, the morning after Iran’s Jan. 8 ballistic missile attack on Al Asad air base in Iraq, Defense Department leaders said there were “no casualties.” 

That initial assessment hasn't held up, and neither have the department's varying statements on the matter since then.

The Pentagon confirmed Friday that 34 personnel have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries or concussions from the strike. While half have subsequently returned to duty, 17 continue to be treated in Germany and the United States, Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, told reporters.

In the intervening weeks, details on the wounded have been reported in dribs and drabs, from eight initially, to 11. On Wednesday, a top commander in Iraq told reporters the number of injured was “in the teens.”

In the midst of this, President Donald Trump weighed in, saying Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland, that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things.” He added: “But I would say, and I can report, it is not very serious, not very serious.”

On Thursday, when asked about cases of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, that stemmed from the Al Asad attack, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he didn’t know the numbers.

“Those are typically things we don't report. This is mostly outpatient stuff. So we can track that if — if you're really interested in it,” Esper said, according to the Pentagon’s transcript.

The following day, his spokesman confirmed 34 diagnoses of TBI.

To be sure, part of the Defense Department’s challenge stems from the fact that brain injuries can take time to develop and be diagnosed. Accurate information isn’t always immediately available, and is subject to change as symptoms emerge. We get that.

But the Pentagon had weeks to assess the damage to American troops. And Esper’s remarks suggested that the Defense secretary was not tracking the status of service personnel whose injuries were serious enough to warrant treatment in Germany or the United States.

(It didn’t help that when Robert Burns, the Associated Press’ venerated Pentagon correspondent, called Central Command to ask for an update, a spokesman said the command will no longer “play this game,” i.e. provide factual information about the injuries, according to a tweet from Burns.)

The issue also laid bare the quandary that faces Esper and the Pentagon: Answering truthfully could put them at odds with the commander in chief.

‘Deeply corrosive’

At his confirmation hearing in July, Esper said he would “absolutely” be willing to consider resigning if he was asked to do something “illegal, immoral or unethical.”

Seven months later, I’m left wondering: Is undermining the credibility of the Defense Department ethical?

Ever since the U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Esper has come off at times like a cat chasing a laser pointer as he attempts to explain or backtrack the administration’s conflicting statements.

Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, initially described the killing as necessary to stop an “imminent” attack on U.S. personnel in the region. After closed-door briefings, some lawmakers were dubious about just how imminent those attacks were.

Later, Trump, who authorized the strike, said repeatedly that Iran planned to attack four U.S. embassies. Asked about that claim on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Esper said he had not seen a specific piece of evidence “with regard to four embassies.”

Esper did say he shared the president’s view that the threat “could have been attacks against additional embassies.”

Trump later tweeted that “it doesn’t really matter” if an attack was imminent. And, according to NBC News, the strike had been in the works for seven months. Esper hasn’t addressed either.

“That’s deeply corrosive to the confidence the Congress will have in the secretary of Defense,” says Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, of Esper’s verbal gymnastics. “He is either not being honest, or he’s not doing his job properly.”

Other examples

The Soleimani strike is not the only time Esper has embraced the president’s questionable security policies and directions. Schake includes in this category going along with the national emergency declaration on the southern border and the repurposing of military construction funds for a border wall.

This policy was in place before Esper took office, but he just reaffirmed he agrees that it is a national security issue worthy of funds appropriated for military construction projects.

This position could end up costing the Defense Department — which always seems to be asking for more money — billions of dollars when Congress refuses to backfill these accounts.

In the run-up to the House’s impeachment inquiry, Esper said publicly the Pentagon would comply with a congressional subpoena. But when the White House clamped down on that, he reversed course. Several Defense Department officials did testify of their own volition, but the department has not cooperated with the investigation.

Last month, Esper pushed back against a Wall Street Journal report that the Pentagon was considering sending thousands of more troops to the Middle East, a move that would seem to run afoul of the president’s promises to end endless wars there. Speaking at the Reagan Defense Forum, Esper agreed when asked if the report was “fake news.” Yet in the wake of Iran tensions thousands more troops have been sent to the Middle East.

This runs counter to my impressions of Esper when I interviewed him one-on-one during his tenure as Army secretary. Then, Esper was responsive, thoughtful and demonstrated an appreciation of the press’ role in promoting a better understanding of the military’s inner workings among the public and members of Congress.

What’s different, says David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served as a Pentagon spokesman for multiple administrations, is that Esper is now in a role that attracts close scrutiny from the president.

“It’s a combination of managing up and reflecting, at the end of the day, he is a political appointee who works for President Trump,” Lapan says. “The military needs to remain apolitical, to be seen by the public as apolitical, and it needs to have credibility. In the Trump era, that’s increasingly difficult to do.”

Lapan laments the decrease in the frequency and regularity of the Pentagon’s engagements with the press, something he traces back to the tenure of Jim Mattis, Trump’s first Defense secretary. With the press (and by extension, the public), trust and credibility are built over time, one forthright conversation after another, he says.

“A time of crisis is really when you need to have clear, unambiguous communication, not contradictory, confusing communications that cause people to question credibility, to question the information you’re providing,” says Lapan.

The Pentagon press corps is “probably one of the most knowledgeable groups of reporters in the country,” Lapan says. Yet when Esper briefed them last week, he refused to discuss why he suggested that multiple embassies may have been targeted.

“I’ve spoken a lot about Iran this week and I have nothing more to add,” he said.

Translation: Please don’t make me defend a statement by my boss that may not be rooted in actual fact.

“You actually don’t get many opportunities to preserve a reputation for honesty and integrity. And once you lose it, you don’t get it back,” observes Schake. “And I think one of the challenges for people in the administration is preserving their honesty and integrity when the president is comfortable lying to the American public.”

In other words, Esper’s Pentagon has a credibility problem.

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