Senators from both sides of the aisle signaled a growing lack of trust Tuesday in Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his ability to communicate what the military was doing, or was prepared to do, on a range of crises from Syria to the South China Sea.
As a result, "We seem lost" as a nation, Sen Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said at a contentious hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee which heard testimony from Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We seem lost and I would love to see an alternate plan out there," Donnelly said. He singled out Carter's refusal to recommend a safe zone for Syrians fleeing barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes.
Other senators scolded Carter and expressed frustration and bafflement at his performance from Syria and Iraq down to simple housekeeping duties, such as his failure to provide the Committee with his opening statement ahead of time or deliver a promised plan for closing Guantanamo.
The frustration boiled up during the course of the hearing when Sen. Lindsey Graham described the Syria and Iraq policy as communicated by Carter "half-assed."
It came to a head at the end after Carter had hemmed and hawed on whether Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed in "combat" in a raid to free hostages in Iraq, and whether a Navy destroyer had indeed sailed within the 12-mile limit declared by China around its artificial military islands in the South China Sea.
"I've known both of you for many years and I am great admirers of both of you," Sen, John McCain, R-Ariz., the SASC chairman, told Carter and Dunford, but he said Carter was straining his trust "when you can't confirm or deny" that the destroyer Lassen had passed within the 12-mile limit even as the ship's movement was widely reported and publicly denounced by China.
"Could I again caution you, Mr. Secretary -- it isn't helpful to our relations and to members of this Committee when you can't confirm or deny," McCain said. "There's a certain amount of frustration here because of the lack of communication."
Groping for words, Carter said "again, I don't mean to be coy about the ship sailing" but "there are all kinds of things I don't like to talk about" when they involve military operations. "I do, I do," understand the frustration, and "maybe my caution is excessive. Maybe this one should be an exception," Carter said.
McCain said he was baffled by Carter's reluctance when "literally every member of this committee applauds" the destroyer's challenge to the Chinese. "But yet you won't tell us -- that causes frustration, Mr. Secretary."
McCain said he also was frustrated by Carter's failure thus far to deliver to the Committee a promised plan for closing the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base.
"I too, like you, favor closing 'Gitmo' if at all possible," Carter told McCain, but a number of prisoners there can't be transferred to other countries and a survey of possible sites in the U.S. to continue detaining them was necessary. Carter said the process was now complete and McCain's Committee would be getting the plan soon.
However, McCain said that Carter and the White House would have to overcome a "credibility gap" on Guantanamo brought on by the trade of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners who had been held at Guantanamo.
McCain said the White House, fearing a leak, had failed to provide Congress with the required 30 days notice of the Bergdahl trade as required by law. "So the cynicism here is immense," McCain said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.