Standoff over Pentagon closure in Va. escalates with call to subpoena Gates

Amid growing frustration, 37 House lawmakers are pressing for a subpoena of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a last-ditch effort to receive information on his decision to close the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). 

The 37 members, including Republicans and Democrats from 22 states, are asking the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee to require Gates to testify before the panel, and if necessary, to subpoena him. 

The situation surrounding the closure of the Joint Forces Command escalated just days after Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn and other Pentagon higher-ups testified before the Senate and House Armed Services panels about wide-ranging efforts to save money and make the Pentagon more efficient. 

But those heated hearings have done nothing to allay lawmakers’ concerns, particularly with regard to the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. The Virginia delegation has been inflamed by the decision to close the command in their state, which employs about 6,000 people. 

Moreover, they continue to accuse the Pentagon of “stonewalling” them because, after seven weeks of requests, officials have yet to provide the data and analysis in support of closing the command. 

“We have been thwarted, blocked, ignored and stymied by the Department at every turn,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “We are now taking an unprecedented response to their unprecedented move to begin the unilateral, large-scale closures of our defense installations.”

Now lawmakers from other states have joined the Virginians, fearing that their states may eventually be hit with military closures without receiving the necessary explanation from the Pentagon, Forbes told The Hill. 

Forbes said that the 37 lawmakers, all members of the House Armed Services Committee, want Gates to answer questions about his proposals and provide documents supporting the decisions. 

“It’s just a frustration that they have pulled the shades down at the Pentagon,” Forbes said. “More and more now, the secretary is making decisions and he is backfilling the documentation after the decision is being made.” 

Gates, whose service now spans a Republican and Democratic administration, is widely liked and respected on Capitol Hill. He has had a strong relationship with both Republicans and Democrats on the committees with jurisdiction over the military. 

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Gates on Aug. 9 announced his decision to close JFCOM and also cut scores of senior military and contracting positions across the department.

JFCOM is one of 10 combat commands, which include Central Command, European Command and Africa Command. JFCOM was previously the U.S. Atlantic Command. After the Soviet submarine threat diminished at the end of the Cold War, the command in 1999 was turned into a training, concepts and experimentation combatant command spanning all armed services.

Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Virginia Reps. Glenn Nye (D), Robert “Bobby” Scott (D), Rob Wittman (R) and Forbes recently have urged Gates to conduct a review of JFCOM’s mission and activities without a predisposed intent to close the command.

“We certainly could force them not to do this [closure],” Forbes said on Thursday. 

The tone of the hearings this week foreshadowed the coming tug-of-war between the Pentagon and Congress over the decision to close JFCOM. Congress could pass legislation to stop or slow the closure, but the decision ultimately lies with President Obama. The president has not yet responded to the Pentagon’s recommendation.

Lynn, the deputy secretary of Defense, this week defended the Pentagon’s decision as a “military decision,” not a “business case analysis.” He said that Gates has consulted with his closest military advisers on the rationale for JFCOM and spent several months reviewing proposals to eliminate several Pentagon organizations. Gates held more than 30 meetings with senior Defense Department leaders, according to Lynn.

Lynn said JFCOM focused on four central purposes: joint manning, joint training, joint doctrine and joint experimentation. Out of those, the Pentagon decided it needed to maintain its progress on joint training and doctrine to get all the military services to fight well together. The joint manning part, he said, would be “better performed” at the Pentagon’s Joint Staff level. 

Therefore, the Pentagon leadership can no longer justify a four-star command with a budget of $1 billion, Lynn stressed.

Pentagon leaders are still in the process of determining what portion of the $1 billion they will be able to save and how much will be needed to continue maintaining the joint training and joint doctrine centers and facilities, some of which would stay in the Norfolk area. 

If Gates testifies before the House Armed Services Committee — with or without a subpoena — he will only be able to do so after the middle of November. Lawmakers have left Washington to campaign for their midterm elections.