Senators to Esper: Reverse Your Decision to Kill Stars and Stripes

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies
Defense Secretary Mark Esper testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the budget, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A group of senators wants to reinstate funding for Stars and Stripes, the military's newspaper for service members, as the organization faces being totally defunded before the year is out.

The bipartisan group, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), on Wednesday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper to preserve the "historically significant publication," which only requires "a tiny fraction" of the Defense Department's annual budget, according to the lawmakers.

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"Stars and Stripes is an essential part of our nation's freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom," the 15 senators said in the letter. "Therefore, we respectfully request that you rescind your decision to discontinue support for Stars and Stripes and that you reinstate the funding necessary for it to continue operations."

The Pentagon in February proposed cutting all of the newspaper's funding -- roughly $15.5 million annually -- to reallocate those dollars toward other high-profile programs, such as space, nuclear and hypersonic systems, Esper said at the time. The Senate version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act does not contain funding for the paper; lawmakers will convene this fall to develop a joint version of the bill.

"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," he said during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, following DoD's $740 billion budget submission to Congress. Stars and Stripes is published in print and online.

While the paper, which is distributed to U.S. troops stationed at bases worldwide, maintains editorial independence, it receives federal funding as part of the Pentagon's Defense Media Agency. About $8.7 million of the subsidy comes through operations and maintenance (O&M) funding, and about $6.9 million from contingency operations funds, Stripes said. The remainder of the Stripes annual budget comes from advertising, subscriptions and sales.

The senators warned that the deadline for the paper's operation to disband is fast approaching.

"We understand that DoD plans to cease publication of Stars and Stripes on September 30, 2020 and completely dissolve the organization by January 31, 2021 as a result of the proposed termination of funding in the fiscal year 2021 President's budget," they said. "We urge you to take steps to preserve the funding prerogatives of Congress before allowing any such disruption to take place."

In July, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a Marine veteran, introduced an amendment during the House Armed Services Committee markup that would allocated the necessary $15.5 million to keep Stars and Stripes afloat.

"Thousands of troops around the globe rely on them for the kind of news that just isn't covered elsewhere -- stories from American bases, the latest Department of Defense news, and transparency coverage that cuts through political and military brass BS talking points," Gallego said. "It's exactly the type of honest coverage that our armed forces need, and we weren't going to let the Administration stifle these voices without a fight."

The lawmakers on Wednesday noted that because of language within the previous year's continuing resolution, passed to sustain funding levels, DoD also cannot legally terminate a program "until a full-year appropriations bill is enacted."

"It was Stars and Stripes that revealed the Defense Department's use of public relations firms that profiled reporters and steered them toward favorable coverage of the war in Afghanistan," the lawmakers said.

"Most recently, the paper brought to light the failure of schools on U.S. military installations to shut down during the pandemic, despite Japanese public schools doing so. These stories illustrate why Stars and Stripes is essential: they report on stories that no one else covers."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: DoD Budget Proposal Cuts All Funding to Stars And Stripes; Lawmakers Back Newspaper

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