Nondisclosure Disclosures

By Dan Dupont / February 25, 2009 at 5:00 AM

As's Jason Sherman reported yesterday in a must-read piece, the defense secretary -- and not the White House, as others have suggested -- has told everyone involved in the process of retooling the FY-10 defense budget they must sign a nondisclosure agreement that says they won't talk to anyone about it.

Gates, according to defense officials, signed the first such pledge on Feb. 13 at a high-level meeting with the top brass and newly appointed Obama administration Pentagon officials. Following his lead, everyone from four-star generals to office managers involved in the budget review must commit in writing to discuss budget deliberations only with those immediately involved in the process.

“We're dealing with highly sensitive matters involving programs costing tens of billions of dollars,” Geoff Morrell, Gates' spokesman, told on Feb. 23.

There are, of course, billions of dollars at stake here as the Pentagon tries to bring the defense budget in line with the Obama administration's priorities in a very short time frame. (Topline figures on the budget come out tomorrow, but the details won't be available until late next month.) But the nondisclosure agreements are, to say the least, unusual -- despite what Morrell, the spokesman, said today in a briefing to reporters. From the transcript, which we'll have for you shortly:

Q Did this directive come from the White House . . . or was this a Gates (decision ?)?

MR. MORRELL: It was the secretary's idea. And it's not terribly unusual. . . .

Q It's highly unusual.

MR. MORRELL: Well, but it was used during the BRAC process, I understand.

Q It wasn't used in any budget process I've been covering, even under Rumsfeld, "Mr. Disclosure" himself.

MR. MORRELL: This is -- this is a big deal to the secretary. . . .

Q Is the concern in the entirety the budget process, or is there also a concern that there could be some manipulation or problems on Wall Street at a very volatile time?

MR. MORRELL: I think it's a number of things. I think -- well, our primary -- the secretary's primary concern is the budget process. But we're not naive, either. We understand these involve huge corporations that have a lot riding on the outcome of these discussions. . . .

Q If the information is classified, there's criminal penalties for disclosing it. So that is clearly something people are not supposed to do anyhow. Are we talking -- are you talking about nondisclosure of certain unclassified information? Is that what we're talking about here?

MR. MORRELL: I think most of the information that's probably being discussed is classified. But there's a process that the secretary wants to keep as collegial and confidence-building as possible. So you know, it doesn't have to be germane, necessarily, to speaking to a classified briefing paper that they are working with.

The whole process the secretary wants to keep out of the limelight. He wants to keep it secret, because ultimately it needs to be judged on the whole and not bits and pieces which may leak out. And he wants people to participate in this with the confidence of knowing that what they are saying is not being leaked, it's not being disseminated, and therefore we can work together perhaps in a more collegial and honest way and come up with a better product.

Q What does it say, Geoff, about the secretary's own confidence in his most senior military and civilian advisers that he requires them to sign a piece of paper rather than just say, "I expect you not to talk," and believe that they won't talk? What does it say --

MR. MORRELL: The secretary signed the agreement himself. He's subjecting himself to the same standard that he's asked of those who are working for him.

. . . He wants to create . . . an environment in which the best possible budget can be built. And he believes the only way to do that is to make sure that we are doing this in a utter and complete secrecy until that budget is rolled out.

Q But if it's secret, Geoff . . . if information is secret and therefore classified, there are criminal penalties for disclosing it, why --

MR. MORRELL: Barbara, you've been around here long enough to know that classified information with potential criminal consequences gets leaked all the time. This is to reinforce the message that indeed this is classified material, these are highly secret discussions, and we should remember that, be mindful of it and honor it.

Q Did he require the Joint Chiefs -- if he signed it, did he require --

MR. MORRELL: Everybody who is participating signed it. There is no one -- and if you didn't sign it, you aren't participating. So if you want to be a part of the budget process, you had to sign it.

Q Can you just for the record tell us, did the Joint Chiefs of Staff sign this?

MR. MORRELL: Every -- everyone is -- yes, all the chiefs signed it.

Q Did you sign one?

MR. MORRELL: I am not participating in the process, which allows me to speak to you with total honesty and a clean -- clear conscience, and so no, I'm not participating in the process.

Q So he doesn't think the issue of classification of sufficient.

MR. MORRELL: I think I've answered the question several times. . . .

Q How does that level of secrecy and control at the beginning square with the new administration's stated goal of maximum transparency throughout all -- the whole process?

MR. MORRELL: I don't think the administration has been advocating a -- transparency in national security matters. I think that at the end of this it will be apparent to everyone where the secretary is and the process -- what the process has yielded. But I do not believe that the president's call for greater transparency means that we should get rid of classification of materials that are highly sensitive. . . .

Q You're leaving the impression with the viewers and listeners that a lot of the material -- the budget material is, like, stamped "Top Secret" and sensitive, compartmented and all that, when, in fact, most of this is for official use only, or unclassified. I mean, do you need to bound this a little bit so that you -- people don't think the Pentagon Papers are being floated around here -- the budget season?

MR. MORRELL: . . . . If, indeed, not all the materials that this gang is working with are marked "secret" or are classified and therefore for official use only, all the more reason for a nondisclosure agreement so that those matters could not be discussed as well.

The bottom line is, the process is one, the secretary wishes to keep close hold while it is under way. When it's appropriate, when decisions have been made, when he has a budget to present, he will do so, I am confident, in a very open and transparent fashion so everybody knows what the end result is and likely how we got there. Okay?