The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.
Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."
Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.
That bit of nuance came at the end of a statement that was meant to ease the concerns of Sen. Joshua Hawley (R-Mo.), who accused Farah on Thursday of misspeaking when she disputed a Wall Street Journal story about the possible deployments.
Here is Farah's statement in full: "As discussed in the hearing today, we are constantly evaluating the threat situation around the world and considering our options. We adjust our force posture and troop levels based on adversary action and the dynamic security situation. Secretary Esper spoke to Chairman Inhofe this morning and reaffirmed that we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East at this time."
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Wednesday that the United States was considering dispatching up to 14,000 more troops to the Middle East to persuade Iran not to launch attacks on U.S. forces or partner nations, citing unnamed defense officials. President Donald Trump could make a decision this month about how many service members and ships to deploy.
Farah initially tweeted on Wednesday that the Wall Street Journal was wrong because the Pentagon is not sending 14,000 troops to the Middle East. She later clarified that the Defense Department was not considering sending that many troops to the region.
But Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood appeared to confirm the Wall Street Journal's reporting in an exchange with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) during a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Thursday.
When Blackburn pressed Rood on whether the Pentagon was considering deploying up to 14,000 troops, Rood replied, "Yes."
Hawley interpreted Rood's answer as a contradiction to what Farah had told him about the deployments.
"So the Pentagon spokesperson in responding to me last night publicly misspoke – is that what you're saying?" Hawley asked.
When Rood shook his head to indicate no, Hawley continued: "She said: 'To be clear, the reporting about the Wall Street Journal report is wrong. The U.S. is not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East.' But you just told Sen. Blackburn that that is under consideration – and that was in direct response to me so I would like a direct answer: are you considering it or not?"
Rood replied: "The direct answer that I'd give you senator is: We are always considering — and, in fact, based on the threat situation in the Middle East, our watching that, and as necessary — the secretary of defense has told me he intends to make changes to our force posture there.
"With respect to that statement by the spokesperson: We have not made a decision to deploy 14,000 troops …"
Hawley interrupted Rood to insist that his testimony indicated that Farah had misspoken. Hawley demanded an explanation from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, whom he assumed had approved Farah's comments.
"I think some clarification is in order," Hawley said. "I'd like to have it in public because the Pentagon has now made multiple contradictory statements. Can we do that? Can we get that done today?"
Rood said he would discuss the matter with Esper but he disagreed with Hawley that he had contradicted Farah.
"For example, senator, there isn't some pending document with the secretary of defense that states: Deploy 14,000 troops; do you approve; yes or no? I'm not trying to be argumentative, sir."