Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Well, well, look: I already told you, I deal with the goddamn customers!"

"I have people skills -- I am good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that?? What the hell is wrong with you people?!"

Geoff Morrell pulled his very best Tom Smykowski at yesterday's Pentagon press briefing, pretty much losing his shit when repeatedly asked about the process by which GEN McChrystal's resource request "unofficially" made its way to the president's desk late last week.
MR. MORRELL: The secretary late last week provided to the president at his request an informal copy of General McChrystal's resource request. He then also at the president's request on Monday provided the principals with copies -- informal copies of the request. The request is now a -- is now formally working its way through the chain of command -- the U.S. chain of command and the NATO command -- and so that's the latest on where the resource request stands.

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, formally, this should and is working its way up through the respective chains of command in the United States military and NATO, and that is the process it is undergoing right now. The secretary requested early on that he be given a copy of this even before it goes through the formal chain of command.

And as I mentioned to you previously, he was going to hold on to that copy until such time as he felt it was appropriate to share, or, frankly, if the president requested it. This is a case where the president requested it. The secretary provided it to him, as well as to the principals. Now it is working its way up the formal chain of command here and in NATO.

Q Why is it that when the president requested the troop resource request, he didn't get the actual copy? Why doesn't he -- does he not get the actual formal copy of the resource --

MR. MORRELL: The only difference between what he was provided in the formal copy is it hasn't yet been vetted through the chain of command. Once it is formally vetted and the comments that are provided by the likes of CENTCOM and the Joint Chiefs and the chairman and so forth, the president will receive those comments as well.

But he wanted to read this over the weekend, I understand it, and so the secretary provided it to him.
The press secretary then spends the next ten or fifteen minutes getting badgered about what this development means for civil-military relations, and all because he just does a piss-poor job of explaining exactly how staffing actions work in the military. So let's do that here.

I've seen reference to the fact that this resource request isn't a standard request for forces (RFF), including by Morrell in this briefing. He suggests that this request is a more analytical product, that there's more narrative, etc. This is understandable, since it wouldn't make much sense for GEN McChrystal to ship up a stack of paperwork to the SecDef with "40,000" on the bottom line. I'm sure there's some sort of justification associated with all of this, and perhaps a bit of elaboration on where and how the additional units will be employed.

Now having said that, I'm nearly certain that this document would be circulated in much the same way as every other staffing action in the military gets worked. First of all, the thing is not written by GEN McChrystal. This isn't going to come as a shock to most people, but a four-star doesn't just sit down at his desk and say "let me think about what else I could use around here." There's likely been a pretty significant amount of staff work put into this at ISAF, and the J-3/5 (operations and plans) shop would develop a document to reflect the commander's recommendations (formed in conjunction with his planners). That document gets circulated within the ISAF staff, and finally a version is settled on and the commander signs off on it.

So now there's a final product. This was prepared weeks ago, it would seem, to coincide with COMISAF's strategic assessment. Secretary Gates asked that GEN McChrystal hang on to this request/recommendation until the president and his national security principals had the opportunity to digest the strategic assessment and settle on an appropriate course of action. Amid talk that the White House was trying to stifle COMISAF or lay down some appettite suppressants, Secretary Gates later asked for a copy of the request in order to relieve some pressure on McChrystal and escalate the resource question to the Department level.

Meanwhile ISAF's staff officers were working the traps on the normal staffing process, which is to say elevating the document through the chain of command. As I said, Morrell did a really poor job of explaining what this means. Any product that's being circulated from one organization to another organization (or to highers) must first go through review from the parent command, and this one is no different. So the resource request goes up to CENTCOM, where people in the plans shop dissect the work done at ISAF and add their comments, criticisms, and recommendations. The product then either gets returned to ISAF for changes or pushed further up the chain to the Joint Staff. (I would assume in this case, because of the importance to the president of getting GEN McChrystal's unvarnished assessment, that the request kept moving upward with comments appended to it and contributors identified. I wouldn't expect that the request would be repeatedly socialized for consensus considering the sensitivity of the subject.) So it goes to the Joint Staff, where the same thing happens: the J-5 shop (and probably the chiefs) look over it, add their comments, and pass it up to OSD.

This is how the process usually works, and probably is working alongside the more high-profile socialization going on right now with the president and his principals. Some of the journalists just didn't seem to understand why it would happen this way, or why the SecDef would respond to the president's request to take a look before the formal review process (via CENTCOM and the Joint Staff and OSD) had taken place, or why this doesn't speak ill of the Secretary or the President, or something.

Q My question was, if Admiral Mullen and Petraeus have had an opportunity to see this request --

MR. MORRELL: Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus have seen the request.

Q Then why --

MR. MORRELL: There is nobody who is involved in the chain of command who has not seen --

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: -- who has not seen or studied or is intimately familiar with the request.

The only thing that has not taken place thus far is them formally weighing in, in terms of officially vetting and commenting on it.

Q Why wouldn't they have waited, if they've already seen the request? Why would it have to go to the president, without their assessment in it, if they've already seen it?

I think that was the question that Philip was getting at.

MR. MORRELL: Listen, we are involved, as I'd said before, in what is a somewhat unconventional process. And normally -- listen, we saw what happened frankly with the assessment and the leaks that took place. And I think we want -- we wanted to avoid any opportunity for leaking of this, before the president had an opportunity to see it himself.

And so I think that is why the secretary wanted to own it and make -- be the one who determined where it went and when it went there.

. . .

Q I'm still unclear on the resource request, why the secretary and the president found it appropriate to overstep the military chain of command on this request -- on this resource request; why the secretary had this informal copy and provided it to the president before his military leadership. I mean, doesn't this just --

MR. MORRELL: What don't you understand about it? What do you find troubling about it?

Q Just doesn't this just further -- doesn't this further exacerbate this argument that there's a division between the civilian and the military leadership on what you're going on?

MR. MORRELL: I don't -- I don't think so at all. I mean, again, let me remind you of the facts. At every stage in this process, the military has been represented in every discussion. They've participated in every discussion. General Petraeus has a seat at the table today, just as he has in the previous two conversations. General McChrystal will be -- (inaudible) -- in from Afghanistan, just as he had in the previous conversations. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of course, has a seat at the table. So the military is strongly represented in each of these discussions, and will continue to be.

Dude, why are you talking about leaks? Why can't you just say "yeah, all the big boys have seen it, but the document is being processed by their staffs and they haven't had the opportunity to formally comment"?! Do these people think that the military decision making process consists of a bunch of greybeards sitting around a conference table bullshitting and then saying "listen Prez, this is the plan"?

Anyway, the president and everyone else involved in the conversation now knows what to expect as far as resource requests, and have apparently known for about a week now. So anything that's come out of the White House or the Pentagon this week should be considered in that light, including the president's comments to the effect that a substantial drawdown is not being considered.


  1. I'll have to bookmark this to read later!

    (I also have to take a break from Abu M, for awhile, and for real this time. The Pakistani threads are getting to me. I keep thinking, 'someone is getting played, big time.' I don't mean to be cryptic, but.....)

  2. "Do these people think that the military decision making process consists of a bunch of greybeards sitting around a conference table bullshitting and then saying "listen Prez, this is the plan"?"

    yes, yes, actually they do. they have no idea what military staffs are or what they do, all they see are the commanders and the cabinet officials talking at press briefs. And we must maintain the illusion that it is the principals doing all the thinking, all the heavy lifting, we serve at the pleasure of the president, etc etc.

  3. Okay, I finally read your post.

    I still don't understand.