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Checkpoint Washington
Posted at 11:43 AM ET, 09/02/2011

Documents show Pentagon’s communications shop girding for battle over military spending

The Pentagon’s spin machine is revving up as the Defense Department girds for its biggest bureaucratic conflict since the 1990s: the forthcoming war over military spending.

A couple of internal defense memos obtained by The Post underscore just how hard the Pentagon’s strategic communicators have been working recently. In anticipation of what’s to come, they’ve been polishing “talking points” and guidance on how to respond to theoretical questions from reporters, like: “What counts as an ‘acceptable risk’ when it comes to reducing defense spending?” (Partial suggested answer: “These are the strategic calculations that will emanate from the Comprehensive Review. Since that process is ongoing I can’t speculate about specifics.”)

While there’s hardly anything scandalous in that, the documents do show officials going all out to hone their rhetoric.

According to the talking points, prepared by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, it would be “devastating” if Congress and the Obama administration were to whack a collective $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next decade.

“The bottom line is that our country’s security can’t afford those kind of cuts,” it asserts.

At the same time, the talking points and the accompanying memo suggest that the Pentagon spinmeisters are trying to work up attention-grabbing examples of the havoc that they belive would result from such spending reductions.

For instance, the talking points assert that the $1 trillion doomsday scenario would result in “only enough force presence for two theaters and 1.5 major conflicts,” as well as “the smallest Navy fleet since 1915.”

Both claims are highly misleading, if not downright false. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon concluded that it no longer made strategic sense to prepare to fight two major conventional wars at the same time, but rather to plan for a variety of conflicts of different sizes.

And the Navy, with 285 ships and submarines on active duty, has already shrunk almost to its smallest fleet size since World War I (the nadir came in 2007, when it had 278 ships on active duty). It’s still exponentially bigger and more powerful, by any measure, than any other naval force in the world.

In an interview, Brian P. Cullin, director of communication planning and integration for the Pentagon’s public affairs office and one of the authors of the talking points, said the document was only a draft and that the claims “haven’t survived” further review. “They’re not accurate,” he acknowledged. “We didn’t think we could responsibly say that.”

He said the talking points and an accompanying memo titled, “Defense Budget Q&A,” were “very rough” attempts to prepare defense officials for the ongoing public debate over military spending. “It’s basically that we wanted to make some attempt to try to organize our communications,” he said.

Pentagon leaders and top military brass have been taking the cue in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus used the occasion of his retirement ceremony to warn against deep cuts in military spending.

On Aug. 4, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also sounded the alarm, saying that anything more than $400 billion in cuts to projected spending over the next decade “would damage our national defense.”

By  |  11:43 AM ET, 09/02/2011

 
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