Americans need to know how many of its troops are in harm’s way

There is nothing more fundamental to American democracy than the idea that the government must be answerable to the people.

Editor’s Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Civilian control of the military is one of the foundational principles of our nation. Only Congress can declare war and authorize the use of military force. For generations, that principle has been advanced through transparency and accountability to the American people through their elected representatives in Congress. The administration’s decision to stop providing critical information to Congress and the American people about troop deployments threatens the very notion of civilian control and the checks and balances it ensures.

We need to restore public access to quarterly Pentagon reports showing the number of U.S. troops deployed around the world. 

Civilian oversight of the military starts with transparency, and since 2008, these reports have offered a good picture of our commitments overseas to the public, Congress, and the press. Right now, the American people can see how many men and women in uniform are stationed in Japan, Germany, California, or Colorado. But that data is hidden for troop deployments in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, where our service members face great risks.

In a democracy, transparency about military deployments is critical. In contrast, the Russian government has declared all military deaths to be state secrets and threatens people with criminal prosecution for trying to learn where their children were killed in combat.

In our country, this information used to be public. 

Only in 2018 did the Pentagon strip the troop numbers on combat deployments. When Congress pressed for an explanation, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued it was “sensitive information that could advantage our enemy.” Never mind that troop numbers were public during the heights of the forever war, including the surge in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, and the war against the Islamic State. Never mind that the data is quarterly and is only the top-line for an entire country. Mattis’ argument supposes that insurgents in Eastern Afghanistan are planning attacks based on three-month-old data that includes the number of Defense Department civilians stationed in Kabul.

This argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, which is why it was immediately rejected by Congress in the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 595 of that act states that “the Secretary of Defense shall make publicly available, on a quarterly basis, on a website of the Department the top-line numbers of members of the Armed Forces deployed for each country.” There is an exception for sensitive military operations, such as special forces missions in Africa, but that exception explicitly does not apply to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

This provision has been ignored by the Pentagon since it was signed into law by President Trump in 2018. This defiance of law cannot be countenanced.

There is nothing more fundamental to American democracy than the idea that the government must be answerable to the people. Indeed, our founders were particularly sensitive to the risks of an unaccountable military. They knew that decisions over war and peace affected all Americans, and so those choices should be decided by those in our government closest to the people. They wrote Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to give Congress the power to fund armies, and if necessary, take that funding away.

We plan to exercise this authority. 

Our amendment to this year’s NDAA would restrict part of the budget for the office of the Secretary of Defense until the top-line troop data is restored. Our effort is endorsed by groups across the political spectrum, including veterans’ organizations VoteVets, Concerned Veterans of America, and Common Defense. We urge all of our colleagues to join us in demanding the transparency that the American people deserve.

Our proposal is a small step for accountability, but an important one. All Members of Congress — no matter their party, military experience, or committee assignments — should be outraged when the Pentagon ignores the laws we write. 

That is especially true when it denies the American people the right to know where men and women are being sent to war on our behalf. 

Related: The US military’s silence on Afghanistan is a sign of weakness