Blue Model Pentagon
Fighting While Blind

The Navy has an intelligence chief who doesn’t have a security clearance. The Washington Post reports:

Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch has been barred from reading, seeing or hearing classified information since November 2013, when the Navy learned from the Justice Department that his name had surfaced in a giant corruption investigation involving a foreign defense contractor and scores of Navy personnel.

Worried that Branch was on the verge of being indicted, Navy leaders suspended his access to classified materials. They did the same to one of his deputies, Rear Adm. Bruce F. Loveless, the Navy’s director of intelligence operations.

More than 800 days later, neither Branch nor Loveless has been charged. But neither has been cleared, either. Their access to classified information remains blocked.

Branch can’t meet with other senior U.S. intelligence leaders to discuss sensitive operations, or hear updates from his staff about secret missions or projects. It can be a chore just to set foot in colleagues’ offices; in keeping with regulations, they must conduct a sweep beforehand to make sure any classified documents are locked up.

So we have an intel chief who can’t read intelligence—and everyone has more or less put up with it for two years. We are fighting the sort of enemy that makes intelligence (as well as special forces) even more valuable than it is during normal conflicts—and the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of Defense, and the national intelligence apparatus have allowed this farce to go on and on. Think of every situation—from SEAL deployments to the brief Iranian capture of our sailors in the Persian Gulf this January—that Branch couldn’t be briefed on. Think of the inefficiencies that must have resulted. Think of the message that this must have sent to the intelligence community and those reporting to Branch.

Sadly, this news is of a piece with Pentagon culture, which in many ways is as bureaucratic and defensive as any other federal agency. Some combination of employment rules, cronyism, and bureaucratic ineptitude has kept the Admiral at his post, while the unresolved question of his guilt has lingered well beyond the “speedy trial” standard of justice. After this long, either Branch should be free from wrongful stigma, or if guilty, he should have been tried and by now be out of his post and/or in jail. The slow-walking which has let him remain at his post, combined with the suspended security clearance that keeps him from doing his job, is egregious.

As Walter Russell Mead wrote this fall, after a series of scandalous DoD revelations:

When Robert Gates was Secretary of Defense, he found that the Pentagon was ruled by a culture of bureaucratic delay and careerism. This culture affected even such vital issues as getting effective armor to military vehicles, leading to many unnecessary deaths and mutilations by IEDs. In the middle of war, that is, the Pentagon was still in a peacetime military mode, a mode in which buck-passers, bureaucrats, and time-servers push paper, and award one another certificates of merit. One hand washes the other as everybody gets trophies, medals, and promotions at the end of the year.

The pathetic failure of the Pentagon’s efforts in Syria indicate that if anything, this culture of self-congratulation and failure is getting more entrenched.[..] The U.S. is running a vast, multi-country war effort that has become unhinged from any serious strategic vision, and we have a military system in which the commanders who see the futility and try to do something about it (and there are plenty) are sidelined. Go along to get along is the way things work in Obama’s Pentagon, and both the White House and the Congress are more interested in making the military look pretty on the parade ground than making it perform effectively in the combat zone.

It’s hard to imagine a better example of this culture than everyone tolerating this Branch fiasco. Historically, American military leadership has been known for its rapid (indeed, sometimes impatient) removal of under-performing commanders and zero-tolerance, cut-through-the-red-tape approach to bureaucracy during wartime—and the opposite during peace. Unfortunately, while the war against terror is plenty real for the enlisted men and first lieutenants out on the line, the Pentagon brass has made it clear for some time now that they intend to keep working by peacetime rules.

As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling famously wrote in 2007, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” It would appear that, 9 years on, an intelligence chief who loses a security clearance, is in good shape too. And that suggests the principle as a whole still stands.

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