For the better part of the past two days I’ve been watching people – some smart, some earnest, and a lot who are disingenuous – freak out that GEN Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has somehow single handedly destroyed over 240 years of civilian control of the US military. He hasn’t. The feeding frenzy, however, will continue because it provides the political reporters, the pundits and commenters, Republican elected officials, conservative movement leaders, and conservative news and social media elites what they want the most: the opportunity to make Woodward and Costa’s reporting about anything that is not how deranged Trump might have actually been between October 2020 and January 2021; just how badly he and his political appointees had degraded, warped, and twisted the Federal government over their four years in office; and just how craven, anti-American, anti-republican, and anti-democratic the Republican Party and the conservative movement and news and media systems that sustain the party have become to allow this to happen. And before we jump to the next paragraph, the word reporting in regard to Woodward and Costa’s new book is doing a lot of work. Because while it is being reported that Woodward claims to have a transcript of Milley’s call with Speaker Pelosi, the reality is, as is the case with every one of these books Woodward has done for decades, there is NO WAY TO CHECK THE SOURCING because ALL OF HIS SOURCES ARE ANONYMOUS!
The two items regarding GEN Milley that have everyone up in arms are in regard to conversations that Woodward and Costa report that he had with his Chinese counterpart and his guidance regarding orders to launch a nuclear strike. In both cases the people now in hysterics are not actually paying attention to what was either published in the excerpts or what has been subsequently reported today.
Let’s start with the nuclear strike stuff. The argument being made is that GEN Milley, who has no command authority and is the senior uniformed administrator and military advisor to the president, proactively inserted himself into the chain of command for ordering a nuclear strike to block any potential order to conduct one. And, by doing so, he broke civilian control of the military. But here’s what, according to the excerpt published at CNN, Woodward and Costa are actually reporting that GEN Milley said:
In response, Milley took extraordinary action, and called a secret meeting in his Pentagon office on January 8 to review the process for military action, including launching nuclear weapons. Speaking to senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon’s war room, Milley instructed them not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved.“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley told the officers, according to the book. He then went around the room, looked each officer in the eye, and asked them to verbally confirm they understood.“Got it?” Milley asked, according to the book.“Yes, sir.”‘Milley considered it an oath,’ the authors write.
To maintain credibility, Airmen must be ready at all times to respond to requests from the President and his or her advisors via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to employ nuclear weapons. The inability of nuclear forces to respond quickly could undermine the value of deterrence and assurance. (p. 3)
The President may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons.
Execution of these orders through emergency action procedures allow for a timely response to an emergency action message and ensure the directive is valid and authentic. Air Force personnel involved in the actual employment of nuclear weapons are intensively and continuously trained and certified in these procedures so they can quickly and accurately respond to the order. (p. 9)
The US Air Force’s own doctrine places the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the process, not to countermand orders, not to contradict them, but to transmit them from the president and/or the president’s advisors (Assistant to the President-National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense) to the appropriate combatant commanders. Provided Woodward and Costa’s reporting is correct, what GEN Milley appears to have done was to clarify the doctrinal process and procedure. And there’s a very good reason he did that. There was no lawfully, Senate approved Secretary of Defense. There was no lawfully, Senate approved Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. In the White House, Mark Meadows was the Acting Chief of Staff, whatever acting really means in regard to a position that does not require Senate confirmation and in which the person holding the job serves at the pleasure of the president. Additionally, the Acing Chief of Staff, to the acting Secretary of Defense, was Kash Patel, who is one of Devin Nunes’ stooges.
I think a good argument could be made that the civilian portion of civilian control of the military had broken down. The only people in the chain of command at that point who were lawfully in their positions were Trump who was president and the senior uniformed leadership. The only Senate confirmed civilian leadership at the Pentagon at that point was Secretary of the Army McCarthy. As a result, GEN Milley wanted the appropriate senior commanders in the chain to follow the doctrinal process and procedure regarding command and control over the use of nuclear weapons. He didn’t want them to take such an order if it was passed on by unlawfully serving Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, unlawfully serving Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, or unlawfully serving Acting Department of Defense Chief of Staff Kash Patel. The orders either came through the doctrinally prescribed channel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is part of that doctrinally prescribed channel, or they weren’t orders. Between the language in the excerpt, which is the language from Woodward and Costa’s book, and the language in the doctrine for how nuclear launch orders are transmitted, it is very clear what the process and procedure are. What GEN Milley did was to reinforce that to the senior uniformed leadership. That isn’t undermining civilian control of the military. It is insisting that the civilian control be followed precisely as defined in doctrine.
The hysterics over GEN Milley’s reported conversations with his counterpart in the People’s Republic of China is also overwrought and silly. Leaving aside that GEN Milley speaks to his counterparts in a number of nation-states – from allied and partnered to peer competitors to hostile foreign powers – on a variety of matters all the time, We now know, because it was reported today, that GEN Milley was working under instructions from Mark Esper, who was the last actual lawfully serving, Senate confirmed Secretary of Defense.
In mid-October 2020, top Pentagon officials grew concerned about intelligence they’d seen. It showed the Chinese were consuming their own intelligence that had made them concerned about the possibility of a surprise U.S. strike against China, three sources familiar with the situation tell Axios.
- One of the sources said: “I think they [the Chinese] were getting bad intelligence… a combination of ‘wag the dog’ conspiracy thinking and bad intel from bad sources.”
Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper worried the Chinese were misreading the situation and that their misperception could lead to a conflict nobody wanted.
- Esper directed his policy office to issue a backchannel message to the Chinese to reassure them the U.S. had no intention of seeking a military confrontation. The message: Don’t over-read what you’re seeing in Washington; we have no intention to attack; and let’s keep lines of communication open.
- These backchannel communications were handled a couple of levels below Esper, one of the sources said. U.S. officials involved thought the Chinese received the initial message well. Milley followed up later in the month with a call to his Chinese counterpart to reiterate the message, two of the sources confirmed.
- It’s unclear whether anyone at the Pentagon told President Trump or the White House what they were doing.
Around the same time Esper learned of the Chinese concerns, he also learned that a long-planned deployment to Asia had been moved up a couple of weeks earlier than previously planned, to accommodate COVID quarantine protocols.
- Esper told colleagues the last thing the Chinese needed to see at that moment — when they were already misreading Washington’s intentions — was more planes, according to one of the sources.
- Esper went so far as to delay this long planned exercise in Asia until after the election, to lower the temperature.
Axios has not independently confirmed that Milley told his Chinese counterpart he would give him a heads up if the U.S. planned to attack China.
- One source familiar with Milley’s conversations with his Chinese counterpart would only broadly characterize them as Milley saying something to the effect of: “We’ll both know if we’re going to war… there’s not gonna be some surprise attack and there’s no reason for you to do a pre-emptive strike.”
Finally, given that the excerpt published at CNN reports that GEN Milley was in regular contact about these concerns with not just Speaker Pelosi, but also former Secretary of State Pompeo and former Director of Central Intelligence Haspel, there was no breakdown in civil military relations. Speaker Pelosi, former Secretary Pompeo, and former DCI Haspel were all legally and constitutionally in their respective offices. Yes, they are not in GEN Milley’s chain of command as he reports to the president as his senior uniformed military advisor, but this makes it clear that GEN Milley was not off the reservation free lancing. Rather, faced with a complete breakdown in legitimate, constitutional civilian control of the Department of Defense at the most senior levels other than the Secretary of the Army, GEN Milley consulted and coordinated with other legitimate, constitutional officers within both the executive and legislative branches, reviewed and reinforced the doctrinal process and procedure regarding nuclear strike authorization with the senior uniformed leadership in that chain of command, and in regard to the PRC, carried out the orders he had been given by the last legitimately appointed and serving Secretary of Defense.
This is what the excerpts from Woodward and Costa’s new book are actually telling us. Was this the high water mark of civil military relations in the US? No. Should there be legitimate inquiry into this by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees? Yes. Should this include GEN Milley having to answer some tough questions in front of those committees? Definitely.
This wasn’t a mutiny. It was not an attempt to break the chain of command or get other senior uniformed leaders to do so. It is, however, right now an opportunity for political reporters, the political pundits, current and former Republican elected and appointed officials, conservative movement leaders, and conservative news and social media figures to change the subject to cover their own hugely exposed tuchases. We’re going on seven years now where almost every member of each of these groups has managed to completely misrepresent, misreport, excuse, explain away, and/or divert attention from their failures to report or act on the fact that Donald Trump was not just grossly unqualified to be president, but that he presented and still presents, a clear and present danger to the United States as a self governing democratic-republic. Focusing on what GEN Milley did, and misrepresenting it, allows them to not focus on all the terrible things Woodward and Costa are reporting about Trump and the sycophantic enablers he surrounded himself with. It allows them to slide right on by the fact that Mike Pence was actively looking for a way to make Trump’s coup attempt actually happen because Trump was mean to Pence. It allows them to ignore or hand wave away their own culpability in failing to use the simple terms in their reporting that actually describe Trump, his behavior, his actions and the behavior and actions of his senior appointees, advisors, surrogates, benefactors/funders, enablers, and his supporters. A failure which continues to this day!
A scapegoat must be found. Phoney baloney jobs must be protected. Access to sources and funding and sinecures must be preserved. And the role of Azazel, the scape goat for this community’s sins on this Yom Kippur, will be played by GEN Milley. Because the political reporters, the political pundits, current and former Republican elected and appointed officials, conservative movement leaders, and conservative news and social media figures are unable to and incapable of atoning their political sins of commission and omission.