Lawmaker Scolds Pentagon as Thousands More Troops Head to Border

U.S. Army engineers from the 887th Engineer Support Company apply concertina wire in the Brownsville area Nov. 13, 2018. (U.S. Army/ Staff Sgt. Jesse Untalan)
U.S. Army engineers from the 887th Engineer Support Company apply concertina wire in the Brownsville area Nov. 13, 2018. (U.S. Army/ Staff Sgt. Jesse Untalan)

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee sent a sharply worded letter to the acting defense secretary Wednesday, slamming what he sees as a lack of transparency regarding the number of U.S. troops operating on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., told acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that he is "deeply troubled" by the testimony Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood gave during a hearing Tuesday on the Defense Department's support along the southwest border. Thousands of troops are operating there after the Department of Homeland Security requested assistance with the mission, and that number is set to increase by thousands.

But Rood, Smith wrote, failed to share information with the committee about the DoD's decision to increase the number of troops along the border by several thousand. The plan was announced by Shanahan the same day.

"I am deeply troubled that the witnesses did not disclose the upcoming increase in Guard, reserve and active-duty personnel, even though we asked them multiple times during a two-and-a-half-hour hearing what would happen next on the border," Smith said in a statement about the letter. "They never mentioned it, despite the fact that the secretary of defense was revealing an increase in personnel that same day. This was at best an error in judgment and, at worst, flat-out dishonesty."

A Pentagon official declined to address several questions about the letter from Military.com -- including one about Shanahan's view of transparency when it comes to providing Congress and the public with the number of troops involved in military missions around the world -- stating only that they "don't comment on privileged communications between the acting secretary and members of Congress."

Rood was given "ample opportunity" to comment on the border mission, Smith argued. While he testified about enacting barriers and additional surveillance methods, Rood made no reference to plans to increase the number of military personnel involved in the mission.

Smith said Shanahan has since provided more details about what the additional 3,500 troops will be doing on the border when they get there. And though Smith said he appreciated the acting secretary's willingness to discuss the issue, the phone call "is not a substitute for transparency before Congress and public candor."

"Does their refusal to publicly discuss what they are doing indicate that this is a policy they believe they cannot defend in an open public hearing before the full Armed Services Committee, where all 57 members have the opportunity to ask questions?" he asked

Since the border mission started in October, the Pentagon has been "consistently slow to respond" to questions about the number of personnel involved and, at times, even unresponsive, Smith told Shanahan in the letter.

"This is a violation of the executive branch's obligation to be transparent with Congress, which oversees, authorizes, and funds its operations," the congressman said. "It also raises questions about whether the Department thinks the policy of sending additional troops to the border is so unjustified that they cannot defend an increase in public."

The decision to dispatch thousands of U.S. troops to the southern border has been a contentious issue. Some called the move a political stunt by President Donald Trump ahead of the November elections. Trump has argued that the additional personnel, along with a border wall, are necessary to keep out illegal migrants "pouring into the country."

According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of people apprehended at the border -- a commonly used metric to measure how many people are illegally crossing into the U.S., according to The New York Times -- has been on the decline over the past two decades.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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