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Budget Gag Orders Stopped Leaks: Gates

The nondisclosure agreements Defense Secretary Robert Gates required everyone involved in the 2010 budget deliberations to sign, may well become standard operating procedure given how successful they were in preventing leaks from a notoriously porous Pentagon about the secretary's “hard choices.” Gates said it was nothing short of a “miracle” that few details on spending or decisions on key weapons programs were leaked to the press, Congress or industry during more than three months of deliberations with the service chiefs, the Joint Chiefs, senior civilians and combatant commanders.

[Eds. note: Buzz readers will note that Gates' miracle was flawed as we broke the news about the FCS MGV cancellation plans.]

“[It] was critically important as we considered dramatic changes in the way we were going to procure things and programmatic changes to specific programs was that we be able to have those deliberations among the senior military and the senior civilians in the department without the newspapers printing, every single day, the results of our deliberations the preceding day,” Gates said last week, speaking at the Naval War College, Newport R.I.

Gates took the unusual step earlier this year of requiring everyone involved in the 2010 budget deliberations sign nondisclosure agreements. The 2010 defense budget had already become politically hot well before deliberations began in earnest when news got out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had prepared a draft budget request of $584 billion (an 8 percent increase over 2009), putting the incoming Obama administration into the position of having to “cut” defense. The Obama administration’s 2010 defense budget request is $527 billion.

Gates said the nondisclosure agreements allowed participants to concentrate on making decisions that were sure to rile some, instead of, “looking over our shoulder at contractors and Congress and everybody else, and trying preemptively to see how we would get around their objections.”

While the SecDef said there were multiple discussions with the service chiefs throughout the process, major weapons program decisions made very late in the game likely caught some service chiefs by surprise. Gates said he finally decided to cut the bulk of the Army’s FCS modernization program over the weekend before he announced his decisions on Monday. Gates said the Army leadership had made it clear they opposed the cut.

Gates said the budget deliberations were a “collaborative effort” and that all of the services’ programs were examined: “I also thought it was important for the service chiefs each to see that they were not being singled out -- that we were looking at the programs of all the services.”

Gates made it clear he understands that the real battle over the 2010 budget has yet to be joined: “We’ll get into the political tradeoffs once the Congress starts looking at this budget.”

There's a good chance Pentagon lawyers will bust out the nondisclosure agreements at some point during the QDR strategic review, set to begin later this month. Gates said he intends the QDR to determine the fate of a number of big weapons programs such as the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Air Force's plans for a long range bomber.

The signed agreements weren’t the only thing keeping participants quiet. Gates said the size of the group involved in the budget talks was large enough to get input from different stakeholders but was not so large that it would be impossible to figure out who leaked if information got out.

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