The Time I Went Off-Script While Briefing Congressional Staffers

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This quote from The Atlantic online article “Two Young Officers on How the Country Let the Military Down, and Vice Versa” really struck a chord with me:

Military leaders often (privately) complain about congressional visits as a waste of time and an insult to their competence. They would prefer to be taken at their word and be left alone. But I have witnessed professional HASC [House Armed Services Committee] staff incisively tear apart the rosy picture that generals and their staffers try to paint.

So here’s my sea story.

Shortly after 9/11, as I’ve previously written about, I was re-assigned from my billet as Administrative Officer to be the Force Protection Officer (FPO) at Naval Station Everett (Wash.). There was no actual FPO job, but the commanding officer (CO) felt the revised circumstances called for having someone fairly senior overseeing security and anti-terrorism operations.

I quickly learned that the Navy’s security force community is fairly small and — like all small, specialized groups within a larger organization — views outsiders with suspicion. As someone who served many years in the Navy’s Supply Corps, I was very familiar with this. But I was definitely an outsider to the security world in more ways than one.

Naval Station Everett’s parent command was Navy Region Northwest, located across the Puget Sound. “The Region” as we called it was comprised of several bases and commands, including the submarine base at Bangor and the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island. In the name of efficiency, basic functions at each base such as information technology, security, logistics, family services, and operations had been “regionalized” meaning at the local level the officer/civilian in charge of those areas had, in effect, two bosses: the base CO and the regional Program Manager, who — key fact, this — controlled the budget.

So not only was I a stranger to the larger world of Navy security operations, I was an unwanted intrusion in the eyes of the region’s program manager, who only grudgingly acknowledged my presence “in the loop” after my CO insisted on working through me instead of the assigned security officer (who, like all others in regionalized departments was “double-hatted” to the region). I would characterize my tenure as NavSta Everett’s FPO as the most frustrating assignment in my 20-year career.

The zenith of that frustration is why the quote above resonated so strongly.

Months after 9/11 we were told staffers from the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) would be making a tour of the region, to see what had been done to make the bases more secure in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington and to hear about issues we still faced in the area of force protection. Money and people — mostly recalled reservists — were starting to pour in but there was still much to be done at that point.

I was tasked by the CO and, with reluctance, program manager with developing a command overview for the visit. The brief was to be an honest look at the station’s situation but also to highlight certain issues high on the region’s procurement wish list — whether or not these were things our base needed or wanted. Anyone who has served in the military and has been involved with these things will understand how that works.

The brief was prepared but then came a curve ball: the HASC staffers specifically requested to meet alone with the base security heads — no regional or CO representatives allowed. To ensure the “right” messages were delivered, the region commander, a rear admiral, called a meeting with base COs and security heads. Each CO was to present the brief for their base, which the admiral and his staff would critique and make suggestions for improvement. These “finalized” briefs would then be presented by base security officers to the HASC staffers.

My CO could not attend the meeting for some reason that escapes me now, so I was accompanied by the base Executive Officer. The CO insisted I, not the XO, present the brief to the admiral and his staff — the only non-CO to do so. To say it did not go well would be charitable. I started the presentation with a slide showing the layout of the base from above, and my first line — “This is a good picture of Naval Station Everett” — prompted the admiral to chew me out at length for using an adjective. It was a picture, nothing more.

That set the tone and every slide in my brief was dissected and altered. This was actually a blessing because I kept my head down writing notes and didn’t have a chance to response to the comments flying from the admiral, his staff, and the folks from other bases who sensed blood in the water and decided to join in on the fun. Knowing myself, charges for insubordination were a distinct possibility.

The XO, bless her soul, allowed me to vent my frustration during the ferry ride back across the Sound. Once we landed on the East Side, however, I was told to stow my anger and get hot on updating the brief. Which I did.

Come the day of the HASC visit I met the two staffers and we were given the CO’s office to use for the briefing. The staffers were retired colonels, one in either the Army or Marines (I forget) and the other was Air Force. I passed each a paper copy of the brief and began, as ordered, with “This is a picture of Naval Station Everett” but was again interrupted.

Setting aside the briefing package, one of the colonels said they were very familiar with what had probably happened in preparation for their visit. Both had seen it up close and personal during their own years on active duty. They would visit the regional staff last, I was told, and at that time hear what they had to say. For now, this visit was to talk to me, and whatever I had to say would be kept in confidence.

What did I want them to know about the situation in Everett? What were my concerns? What seemed to be working? Not working? What did we need to better accomplish the mission? We spoke for about an hour, with both sides taking notes. I explained how I became the FPO as my lack of security training and experience were clearly evident, but neither seemed too concerned. They listened to what I had to say then told me about some procedural changes that were coming and suggested some hardware in use elsewhere that may help solve specific issues we faced.

When it was time for them to move on to their next stop they thanked me for my candid input and shook my hand. Then one of them stuffed the region-approved briefing package into his briefcase with a wry grin.

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