Transcript

Senior Department of Defense Officials Hold Background Briefing on DOD Advisory Boards

Feb. 2, 2021
Senior Defense Department Officials

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Hello, everybody, thanks for jumping on. 

So just a couple of housekeeping items here.  This is a backgrounder, "senior defense official" -- that's me -- and we'll lift the embargo on this at 2 o'clock.  And I know we owe you some source documents, which we will get to you – in process here -- before the embargo lifts.

The reason I wanted to -- I also have with me "senior defense official two," who -- not to be named, obviously, in the course of this -- this is (Senior Defense Official Two credentials), who I think many of you know.

If you could mute your lines so that -- so that we can get started.

So I'll just kick it off, and then we'll let you guys get right at your questions.

The Secretary has directed a zero-based review of all DOD advisory committees that are not otherwise subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  This review will be led by the interim director of Administration and Management, as well as the acting General Counsel of DOD.

And that will lead -- they'll lead it, and they will make recommendations to the secretary of defense on each committee by the first of June.  Those recommendations will include items such as retention, realignment, termination, changes to mission or functions, membership balance, membership size, and even possible legislative changes to non-discretionary advisory committees.

We can give you a key list of milestones if you want it, that kind of get us from now until June, but I won't dive into those details right now.

Each component head that sponsors a DOD committee, also what we call the DOD sponsor -- for instance, the Defense Policy Board, the sponsor for that is the under secretary of Defense for Policy.  The under secretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness, they sponsor a lot of boards, including the Defense Health Board.

So these DOD sponsors will each conduct an in-depth business case, supported by fact-based evidence for the continued utilization of each committee and consider each committee's mission and function as it relates to the National Defense Strategy and our strategic priorities.

Potential functional realignments to create a single cross-functionary advisory committee, there is -- there is, if you look at the list of committees, which we will make sure you have, you'll see that there is potential overlap in some responsibilities and tasks.

And of course, as I said, they'll look at potential legislative changes to non-discretionary advisory committees to properly align their missions and functions to DOD priorities.

The SecDef also directed -- secretary of defense, excuse me -- also directed that all members currently serving on DOD advisory committees and subcommittees where the secretary or another DOD civilian officer, employee, or active duty member of the armed forces, is the approval authority -- please mute your lines -- is the approval authority for members --

(UNKNOWN): (inaudible).

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Please mute your lines, it would make this a lot easier.

In a case where the secretary or another DOD civilian officer, employee, or active duty member of the armed forces is the approval authority for members, he's directed that they conclude their service on the boards no later than February 16th this year.  So this month.

Members that are appointed by Congress or by the president are retained during this review period, when appropriate following -- when appropriate, following an advisory committee's review and the secretary's decision as to its mission and membership, DOD sponsors will consult with the special assistant to the secretary of Defense for White House Liaison to develop potential member candidates who conform to statuary requirements or the committee's Membership Balance Plan, to ensure future advisory committee and subcommittee appointments comply with all applicable federal statutes and regulations, including our own policies and procedures.

Last thing, and then I'll let you ask questions.  This review will apply to at least 42 committees that currently advise the department across policy, personnel, business, scientific, education, training, health care, and memorial activities.  It is possible that that number of subcommittees and committees could grow, but right now it applies to at least 42.

This review will also direct the component heads to notify (inaudible) -- notify the administration -- the director of Administration and Management of any other committees by March 15th that may be applicable to this, and they'll be subject to the review.  And again, we'll provide you a full list of the 42, we're working on getting you the secretary's memo as well.

So with that, I'll open it up for questions.

Q:  Hey, it's Lita.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Hi, Lita.

Q:  Quick question -- hi.  Quick question, do you have a sense of the number of committee members who would be affected by the February 16th deadline to -- I guess do they resign, or what does that conclude their service, what is that?  Do you know about how many are affected by that, and then how many are affected by the presidential appointments?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I'll let Defense Official Two talk to that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, hi.  In terms of the numbers, we'll get to the exact numbers.  It's in the several hundreds of advisory committee members.  They'll be asked to resign or be dismissed from their service by the sponsor of the board. 

So they'll receive a note or a phone call or a memo from the sponsor of the board, and they'll be asked that -- they'll be told, they'll be thanked, obviously, for their service to the nation, their service to the department.  They'll be asked to depart the board's membership no later than the 16th of February, in line with the secretary's guidance. 

That allows us time to do our zero-based review of the boards.  We're suspending all board activities until that review is completed, and then we'll be renominating, as defense official number one mentioned.  We'll be renominating folks for positions on those boards as they stand back up, as the secretary approves their -- their statutory compliance with balance and other requirements that may be in the statute for nondiscretionary and for discretionary, once again, that serve the purposes of the department and the National Defense Strategy.

So it's in the hundreds, and unfortunately I don't have an exact number, I'll have to get back with you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Next question?

Q:  This is Phil from Reuters.  Just how much do all these boards cost the taxpayer?  Is there an estimate of that?  And is it -- does the suspension include the boards at like the academies, like the Naval Academy, or other academies?  I know Sean Spicer went to the Navy Academy, and.  Anyway, does it include those as well?  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  Let me tackle your second question first, about the academies.  The academies are presidentially appointed, so it does not impact presidentially appointed members on the academy's Board of Visitors.  So those are not secretary of defense appointments to those boards, so it does not affect those particular boards, and there are others that it does not affect those particular boards.  And there are others that it does not affect that are statutorily appointed by the president or Congress.  So it doesn't affect congressional appointees or presidential appointees but those appointed by the secretary.

In terms of costs, we believe that the zero-based review will allow us to examine the detailed cost structures associated with maintenance of these boards.  Many of the boards come with congressional appropriation, some do not.  We think that's part of the requirement that we owe the secretary in terms of our review of the zero-based review that looks at the costs.  But I'll have to get back with you on the total cost of the 42 boards that we're talking about.  I'm sure -- I'm sure we can get some historical data on that for you.

Q:  Is -- is it safe to say, in the millions of dollars, or?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I -- that's kind of a hard guess.  I would say probably between the administrative costs of the boards themselves, the cost -- obviously the members are mostly volunteers or a few appointed staff that support each of the boards, or certainly the larger boards.  So there are costs associated with those boards.  There are travel payments made for board members when they attend meetings, et cetera.

I would say it's in the several millions of dollars.  But once again, I'd have to get back with you in terms of the exact costs.

Q:  Hi, this is Tony Capaccio --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- Quick question from Tony Capaccio.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, Tony.

Q:  Okay.  (inaudible), in terms of the history of the Department, has this ever been done before where there's been a zero-based review of the entire breadth of advisory boards?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  To the best of my knowledge, no.

Q:  And are any of these -- we're talking, like, Defense Science Board, the Defense Policy Board and Defense Business Board?  Those are the most well known names.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  You're correct.  Yes, sir.  Those are -- those are certainly three of our best well-known boards.

Q:  And one final -- are any of the member -- would you say 99 percent of the members are (inaudible) unpaid volunteers?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  That's correct.  There are some --

Q:  Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  -- There are some supported staff that support each of these boards, essentially run board meetings themselves in terms of Robert’s Rules of Order and the administrative costs of managing the boards.  Each of these boards additionally has a designated federal officer provided in support of those boards.  And many of those have contractual discussions in terms of, you know, support for admin notes for setting up meetings, for arranging schedules, et cetera.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

Q:  Hey, it's Luis.  Can I ask, what is the driver for this for you?  Because I think the inference is going to be made by many people that this is driven by the last-minute appointments of -- by individuals from within the Trump administration.  What exactly is the driver for this and how do you respond to that possibility?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, thanks, Luis.  Look, I mean, no question that the secretary was deeply concerned with the pace and the extent of recent changes to memberships of Department advisory committees done with a bit of frenetic activity in the final two months of the previous administration. 

And I think it caused him to -- it gave him pause to consider the broad scope and purpose of these boards and -- and to think about how they can best be aligned and organized and composed to provide competent, technical, professional and -- you know, policy advice to the Department.  And I think -- well, he believes that this review is going to allow him to take a better, deeper look at that and to make sure that the advisory committees are in fact providing the best possible advice, as is their purpose.

Also, though, Luis, and we talked about this a little earlier -- I mean, it does provide an opportunity to look for efficiencies across the work that similar boards do and to balance committee membership in a way that, again, provides him and Department leadership the best possible advice.

Q:  It's Barbara.  Can I ask --

Q:  Does that mean --

Q:  -- Oh, sorry, Luis.

Q:  -- Just one quick one, does that mean that potential Trump appointees may be reappointed and, if so, under what criteria?  Or is that a no-go?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  So I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about -- about reappointments or what -- what the composition of the board -- each board is going to look like.  That's the whole purpose of the zero-based review, so that he can get good recommendations and advice about board compositions.  I just don't want to get ahead of his decision space on that.

Q:  It's Barbara.  Can I ask, does -- I don't know if it's named a board or a commission actually -- the group of people set up by Acting Secretary Miller to work on renaming Confederate bases -- is that included in this?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, Barb.  It is.  And I would just remind everybody that that is -- that is not the same thing as a federal advisory board.  That was a commission set up by Congress in the most recent Defense Authorization Act.  So Congress established that commission -- it's not an advisory board -- four members of which were to be nominated by the secretary of Defense.  The four -- but the intent of this directive by the secretary does, in fact, cover his -- our four names to that commission.  So the --

Q:  So the four people -- the four people named by Miller have to step down?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The four people named by Acting Secretary Miller will no longer be on this commission.  Secretary Austin will work appropriately with -- with the staff here to rename four -- four members.

Q:  And how -- do you have an estimate on how far behind that would put the work of trying to move ahead with the law to rename these military bases?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  Barbara, this is (inaudible).  The answer is it won't.  By statute, the members would have been named by the 15th of February.  So that's still into the future.  Once again, Congress nominates four; the secretary of Defense nominates four.  The first board meeting is to be held, by statute, by 60 days after the statute -- by 2nd of March.  So right now, the board has not been statutorily named and not had its first meeting.  So it doesn't put it behind schedule at all.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Hi, this is Missy Ryan.  Thanks for doing this.  I just have a quick question.  So is the -- the purpose, as I understand it, is to make sure that the boards are, sort of, effectively laid out and that there's not too much overlap and that they serve the right purpose.  But why is it necessary to ask the people to resign while that review is being conducted?  It seems like you -- you know, hypothetically could allow them to continue serving and continuing to provide advice during the review period.

And just -- you addressed this somewhat, but could you just say anything about the criticism that might come from -- you know, people are going to say that this is a purge of Trump.  Just -- if you could, just sort of address that a little bit more directly.  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, again, this was driven by -- certainly driven by the secretary's concern at seeing the frenetic activity in the last couple of months of removing people who had been on some of these boards and then replacing them, or just simply adding to them in a quite unprecedented fashion.  And I think that concerned him about the way these boards are composed and the work that they are doing. 

And I think doing it this way, to your question, Missy, the secretary believes is frankly the most equitable, fair, and uniformly consistent way to do it across the department.  It does, as Senior Defense Official Two mentioned, also provide him an opportunity to get a better handle on where there are efficiencies to be had with respect to these board's activities. 

As for what -- as for what that some critics might say about it, I mean, I won't get into addressing, you know, specific criticisms.  He is mindful that that there will be people who may look at this, you know, in a different way than he does.  He certainly respects their right to have that criticism, but he believed that given the frenetic activity, given the rapid changes that were made in just the last few months that this was the most fair, the most equitable, the most uniform way to get a better handle on the board -- these boards' and advisory committees' activities. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO:  And this to Defense Official Two, quickly, as to your question about why not the members remain until such time as the deep dive is completed.  The secretary has asked us to suspend operations of all adviser committee boards until such time as the deep dive -- the zero-based budget is completed, with noted exceptions coming the secretary and deputies. 

So therefore retaining the current members doesn't really add value to the department or the taxpayer because we're suspending board operations until completion of the zero-based budget review. 

Q:  OK.  Thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Anything else?  OK.  Going once, going twice, embargo lifts at -- in 10 minutes, 14:00. 

Q:  Actually, can I ask one follow-up question?  If you guys -- you guys are going to provide us -- this is Missy again.  If you guys are going to provide us a list of the 42, I think you said, boards which may -- that this applies to, do you have a list of the ones that it doesn't apply to?  Just to make sure that -- I mean, like you said, the service academies and all of that.  Or should we just follow-up with you guys?   

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We're going to send you the list of what it applies to and we're going to provide you the actual memo that the secretary signed.  That's coming to you just in a heartbeat here.  But I think we're going to focus on what it does apply to. 

And, you know, on the board of visitors, remember, those are those are non-discretionary.  So the members appointed by the president to some of those, like the board of visitors for, say, a service academy, they will still be appointed members of board.  It's just that the board's work will be suspended while the zero-based review is conducted. 

Q:  OK, thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes. 

Q:  And, hey, (inaudible), it's Lita again.  Is it possible to get an answer on the number of people that this is going to affect?  I know something in the hundreds.  But is it possible to get some of those numbers nailed down? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We will try to drive to that. 

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We'll try to drive to that, Lita, yes.  We'll make that -- we'll take that question and we'll get you an answer by COB. 

Q:  OK, thank you. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes. 

OK, anybody else?  OK.  Thank you.