Defense Secretary Mark Esper is under fire for the Pentagon’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as lawmakers, national security experts and people throughout the Defense Department’s ranks fault him for a slow and uneven approach to the outbreak.
Esper is coming under scrutiny for punting tough choices over how to slow the virus to local commanders, resulting in a hodgepodge of rules driven more by concerns over readiness than the need to contain the virus. Several military officials expressed frustration with a lack of top-down planning and guidance on decisions from buying equipment to social distancing.
These concerns emerge in interviews with five current Defense officials, some with access to Esper, as well as lawmakers, former defense officials and outside experts. Those currently serving spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
One top Republican acknowledged the response could have been better.
"The whole society, including the military, has been playing catch-up on Covid-19 because we have never seen anything like this before,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). He noted that military leadership is "being prudent with the changes they are making. … We have to be careful being too critical under the circumstances."
A military official was harsher. "We have the resources, purchasing capability and warehouses, so why aren’t we using them?" said the official, who has experience participating in pandemic tabletop exercises.
The Defense secretary’s defenders counter with Esper’s decisions to freeze troop travel in the U.S. and later overseas. He has opened up the Pentagon briefing room to daily — sometimes three a day — briefings with top officials throughout the Defense Department to give up-to-the-minute details on commands’ responses. They point out that a one-size-fits-all approach to stopping the spread may work in the U.S., but not when you’re dealing with ship and submarine crews, where social distancing is impossible.
"He’s made tough calls at every turn and taken significant actions," said Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah.
But Esper didn’t respond quickly enough to the unfolding crisis, critics say, as evidenced by a late January comment that the secretary wasn’t "tracking" the issue. And now the department is facing blowback from local civilian authorities after the Pentagon stopped releasing specific numbers of positive cases at installations.
Esper’s delegation down the chain of command has made the problems worse, argued Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
"There is a lack of leadership right now that is coming out of the Pentagon," said Gallego, who served as a Marine corporal in the Iraq War and is a member of the House Armed Services’ military personnel subcommittee. “If you try to treat it as a readiness problem you are never going to get on top of this. You need to treat it as a public health problem."
The criticism isn’t limited to Democrats. The military has been behind the curve since the beginning, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"Instead of planning for the worst case, they hoped for the best case, which is exactly the wrong approach to take," Eaglen said, noting that like the rest of the Trump administration, DoD has been consistently "7 to 14 days behind."
Esper’s approach was on display Tuesday night, when he acknowledged on national television he had not closely read a letter from an aircraft carrier’s commanding officer who was pleading with leadership for help and supplies amid a coronavirus outbreak on his ship.
"I’m going to rely on the Navy chain of command to go out there to assess the situation," he said on "CBS Evening News."
"How could it be that most of the nation read this heartbreaking letter before you, @EsperDoD?" tweeted Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). "Or were you not being truthful, in order to avoid answering even harder questions about how this could be allowed to happen in the first place?"
Another Republican lawmaker was struck by the tone of the letter. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told POLITICO that "it should be taken very seriously" and expressed concern that the Navy may not be moving quickly enough to accelerate testing of sailors onboard the ship. The Navy on Thursday fired the commander for the tone of the letter.
Farah noted that Esper took immediate action after learning of the crisis on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, authorizing the ship to stop in port, begin offloading sailors and conduct mass testing for the virus.
The situation aboard the Roosevelt, sidelined in Guam with almost 100 positive coronavirus cases, is not the only hot spot within the U.S. military that is causing concern. On Friday, Fox News reported that the virus has hit sailors on a second aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, which is pierside in Japan.
And on Monday, multiple outlets reported that dozens of Marine recruits and staff members at the service’s East Coast recruit training center at Parris Island, S.C., were infected. The outbreak forced the service to suspend additional arrivals for the foreseeable future. The Navy’s boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill., did the same thing. Meanwhile, four Air Force recruits at Joint Base Lackland-San Antonio, Texas, tested positive for the virus in less than a week, but the service decided to continue shipping recruits to basic training.
"From where I’m sitting, it appears like the level of delegation down to the individual commanding officer about what they are going to do has reached such a level that there has been no uniformity not only across the [DoD] but across individual commands," said one former senior Navy official.
The approach extends to the military’s efforts to buy critical gear for hospitals fighting the virus. One military official, whose team has been tasked with purchasing ventilators, expressed frustration about how little direction they were getting from senior leaders. The team was initially told to find and evaluate sources and start coming up with solution, but after a week of hard work, they were told to "pump the brakes" because DoD has not yet identified a requirement or funding to purchase the ventilators.
"We are working around the clock to start responding to this, and we are not getting any the direction coming from higher up as to what exactly to do," the military official said. Guidance "has been very limited at this point."
A U.S. government official said the challenge is that Health and Human Services and FEMA have not set clear guidelines for where the ventilators are needed. DoD has expedited existing ventilator contracts with four vendors, the official said, adding that 8,000 will be delivered in six months. The first delivery will be early May.
Esper’s own timing came under scrutiny recently, after Farah told reporters that the secretary was monitoring the situation "very carefully" in mid-January. But on Jan. 22, a reporter asked Esper whether the virus was an issue at his level.
"It’s just — I just saw it on the news last night, so I’m not tracking that," Esper replied. Farah said Esper was referring to a specific case in the United States, not the outbreak overall, and noted that a week later DoD issued the first guidance to the full force on Covid-19.
Gallego said in an interview that he believes the military’s response so far, including the implementation of social distancing measures to prevent the spread, is too uneven. After Esper decided to allow local commanders to decide how their units should respond, photos began appearing on social media of troops crowding into rooms for all-hands calls.
Gallego says commanders are still too focused on individual units where the virus is cropping up rather than taking a more holistic approach to determine how far it might have spread across the force so it can prepare to backfill units that may need reinforcements.
"The old military attitude of drink water and change your socks is not going to work right now," Gallego said.
Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman pushed back on the criticism, noting that the department has been responding to the pandemic — including issuing travel restrictions, implementing social distancing, and providing widespread testing — for more than two months.
"This is a challenging environment where we have to balance protection of our forces with our national security missions and our efforts to help the American people, but the Department of Defense is leading in this crisis and has been since the first days," Hoffman said.
But Esper is getting low marks even from within the department, where he was criticized for not immediately putting out a message to reassure the force, said one defense official familiar with the discussions.
"There is an increasing tone in the building of not a lot of faith and confidence in Esper," the official said.
Farah noted that Esper recently did a global town hall that had hundreds of thousands of views, issued a letter to the full force and made resources available on the DoD website about the virus.
Gallego and others have also criticized what they see as Esper’s lack of communication and transparency on the pandemic. Esper on Friday directed the Pentagon to stop releasing numbers of coronavirus cases at specific locations. The department is still releasing the total number of military members affected.
Since taking the reins of the Pentagon last summer, Esper has worked to increase transparency at the building, which hit a low point under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Esper has strengthening his public relations team and has held more regular press briefings.
And during the coronavirus crisis, Esper has empowered the military services to continue to release daily updates on the total number of reported cases, said.
But in accordance with new guidelines issued last week, the department is no longer releasing the number of cases at individual units, bases or combatant commands, "out of a concern for operational security with regard to readiness," Farah said.
Base commanders have been instructed to continue to work with local health officials to share information within the community, she noted.
Defense officials said the change was designed to prevent adversaries from gleaning information about potential vulnerabilities due to the virus.
“If anything, don’t know why [Esper] didn’t put out that guidance sooner,” said the defense official, adding that the move was not directed by the White House.
Restricting information about numbers of cases at deployed locations makes sense for operational security, said retired Marine Col. David Lapan. On an aircraft carrier, for instance, adversaries are watching closely for any sign that the ship would not be able to get underway in the case of a conflict or other emergency.
But for bases in the United States, such as boot camps, limiting access to information only erodes the department’s credibility, he said.
"On the one hand I can understand some concern for not giving our adversaries too much information, but on the other hand I think operational security is being overused as a blanket rationale," said Lapan, a former spokesperson for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. "You can’t tell me enemies are looking at how many people are sick in recruit training."
Eaglen noted that hiding an outbreak on a Navy ship, particularly an aircraft carrier, is next to impossible.
The outbreak on the Theodore Roosevelt “exposes great vulnerability and projects weakness,” she said. “It’s reality, I’m not sure you can hide it — everyone knows where the carriers are.”
A traditional Pentagon ally that represents hundreds of military communities around the country also maintains that the level of communication must improve.
“We think that this crisis is a particularly important time to make sure that the defense line doesn’t divide the installation from the community,” said Joe Driskill, the president of the Association of Defense Communities, who appealed to Esper in a letter Wednesday for more public transparency.
Hoffman noted that Pentagon has conducted more than 21 on-camera, on-the-record press briefings on Covid-19 in the last three weeks, in addition to senior leader interviews and town halls, he said. The department has also provided daily fact sheets to the media with the aggregate numbers of DoD personnel and dependents affected by the virus.
The former senior defense official lauded Esper’s team for daily press briefings and steady release of top-line information. However, "that doesn’t change the fact that there has been a level of delegation of decision making authority to a level that I don’t think is appropriate to meet the needs of this particular crisis."
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.