WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday defended the Pentagon's effort to strip Stars and Stripes of all of its federal funding as part of its fiscal year 2021 budget request, telling reporters in Brussels that the independent news organization is not a priority.
"So, we trimmed the support for Stars and Stripes because we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues," Esper said during a news conference at NATO headquarters. He listed space, nuclear programs, hypersonic missiles and "a variety of systems" as places the money -- slightly more than $15.5 million -- could be reinvested in the $705.4 billion Defense Department spending proposal.
Pentagon officials acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that the budget proposal completely cuts the subsidy that the department provides Stars and Stripes to print and distribute newspapers to troops deployed around the world, including remote and often-dangerous locations in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Stars and Stripes receives about $8.7 million annually in operations and maintenance funds and about $6.9 million in contingency operations funds, said Marine Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a spokesman for Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist.
The cut to Stars and Stripes' annual Pentagon subsidy equals about half of the news organization's annual funds to pay expenses. Stars and Stripes' remaining money comes from sales, subscriptions and advertising.
Pentagon officials confirmed Monday that the budget request would cut at least some funding to Stars and Stripes, but they declined to provide monetary figures attached to the proposal. Stars and Stripes' leadership was informed of the proposed cuts by Pentagon leadership also Monday, after The Wall Street Journal reported the news organization was eyed for a funding reduction.
Stars and Stripes first appeared during the Civil War, and it has been published continuously since World War II. It produces daily newspapers for U.S. military troops around the world and operates a website that is updated with news 24 hours per day. Though it is part of the Pentagon's Defense Media Agency, Stripes retains its editorial independence and is congressionally mandated to be governed by First Amendment principles.
In Logan's statement Wednesday, he acknowledged Stars and Stripes' value during its seven decades of continuous service to the U.S. military community.
"Their hard work and dedication in reporting on issues that matter the most to the military community continues to be of value," he said. "However, as we look forward to the current budget proposal and beyond, the DOD must prioritize spending to support our warfighters in the most critical areas of need. Therefore, the department has made the difficult decision that, beginning in fiscal year 2021, it will no longer provide appropriated funds to Stars and Stripes."
The news organization's value to American troops has been proven, said Ernie Gates, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman. He said the newspaper not only provides service members "a little piece of home" or a "welcome diversion" from tough missions, but it also provides independent, free-flowing information that they need to exercise their rights as Americans.
The proposal has received pushback from varying directions, including a former commander, lawmakers and a key journalism advocacy-and-education organization, the Society of Professional Journalists.
SPJ called on Esper to rethink the funding cut to Stars and Stripes, which it said would be "a huge disservice to the men and women who serve our country" who rely on the physical newspaper in areas where they cannot access the internet.
"Since it was first published during the Civil War, Stars and Stripes has been a balanced and objective source of information for members of the military," SPJ National President Patricia Gallagher Newberry said Wednesday in the statement. "Its ability to inform troops about issues important to them must not be hindered."
Military veteran lawmakers Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., tweeted their support for Stars and Stripes this week.
"Stars & Stripes was a link to home when I was in Iraq and Okinawa," wrote Gallego, a Marine veteran. "It's an A+ indie take on everyday DoD news, f*** ups, and Administration & General Officer BS. No wonder this President wants to cut it. He's got a fight on his hands."
Cisneros, a Navy veteran, wrote Stars and Stripes "provides a crucial voice on the DOD, VA, and other military matters."
"We need their reporting," he tweeted.
Other members of Congress reached this week for comment said they needed to take a close look at budget documents before speaking. One member expected to be briefed on the Stars and Stripes funding proposal this week.
In an email, a former top commander of American and NATO troops in Europe defended Stars and Stripes.
"Every day in my office as commander [of] U.S. European Command, I would read Stars and Stripes," said retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who served as EUCOM chief and NATO Supreme Allied Command from 2009 to 2013. "It was an invaluable, unbiased, and highly professional source of information which was critical to me in my role overseeing U.S. military throughout Europe."
--Stars and Stripes reporters Slobodan Lekic and John Vandiver contributed to this report.