Lawmakers slam Trump's pick for defense secretary

New policy seeks to limit oversight of Pentagon

By Ryan Browne, CNN
Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan

(CNN) - The senior Democrat and Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee criticized acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan over a new policy which they say seeks to limit congressional oversight of the Pentagon.

"If implemented, the Department's new policy guidance would dramatically limit Congress' ability to execute our constitutional prerogative," said Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, and ranking member Mac Thornberry, a Republican.

"Congress oversees the Department of Defense; but with this new policy, the Department is overstepping its authority by presuming to determine what warrants legislative oversight," they added.

The statement refers to a Shanahan-approved Pentagon memo, which has been obtained by CNN, and is dated May 8.

The memo stipulates that when a Department of Defense "component receives a congressional request for access to an operational plan or operational order the DoD component will forward the request" to a senior official who will review it using a series of criteria to include "whether the request contains sufficient information to demonstrate a relationship to a legislative function" and "whether the request implicates presidential decision-making or the President's prerogatives as the Commander in Chief."

The Washington Post was first to report the content of the memorandum.

The memo also says that the reviewing official should consider "whether the possibility of disclosure presents an unreasonable risk to the conduct of operation" prior to releasing the material to Congress.

That part of the policy drew criticism from Smith and Thornberry who wrote "this policy also accuses Congress of being a security risk for classified information, which is both inexcusable and inaccurate."

"The Department is not in a position to evaluate Defense committees' worthiness to receive classified information, nor characterize our ability to appropriately protect it," the two lawmakers added.

Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, defended the new policy saying that "in establishing this policy, Secretary Shanahan seeks to increase transparency and information-sharing with Congress."

"The Department of Defense has been engaging with the Senate & House Armed Services Committees to develop a process for providing Congress with access to plans and operational orders, including Executive Orders. This policy establishes such a process. Previously, no such policy existed," he added.

However the congressional push-back over oversight comes as Shanahan is preparing to face confirmation hearings in the Senate following President Donald Trump's decision to tap him as his permanent secretary months after the resignation of his predecessor James Mattis.

Smith and Thornberry said they plan to address the new policy in upcoming National Defense Authorization act legislation.

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