February 16, 2022

ICYMI: Warren Presses Pentagon Nominees for Tough Oversight at the Pentagon to Mitigate Civilian Casualties and Improve Military Housing Conditions

Video of Hearing Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, D.C. — During a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) expressed concern to Robert Storch, nominee to be Inspector General for the Department of Defense (DoD IG), about key information the Pentagon is keeping from the public through “pseudo-classification” and called for enhanced transparency to mitigate civilian casualties. During her exchange with Christopher Lowman, nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, Senator Warren pressed Mr. Lowman to improve military housing quality for servicemembers and their families by quickly implementing a Tenant Bill of Rights and creating the housing quality complaint database required by the Senator’s fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act amendment. 

Senator Warren has long led the call for transparency and accountability for U.S. military operations that kill innocent civilians. Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.

Senator Warren has led efforts to secure safe and accessible housing and protect the rights and wellbeing of military families. After pressure from Senator Warren, Mr. Lowman committed to doing everything in his authority to make sure that the housing quality database and enacting a Tenant Bill of Rights get completed this year. In January 2021, Senator Warren similarly asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III for his public commitment to respond to her requests regarding military housing issues and to pledge that he would make fixing this problem a priority. 

Transcript: Nominations - Storch, Martinez-Lopez, Lowman, Beshar,
U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee
Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, congratulations to all of our nominees and welcome to your families who are here or watching remotely. Mr. Lowman, you’ve been nominated to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment, and that means that for now you’ll be overseeing the military’s housing program for service members. Now no one, no one should have to live with black mold, leaking and collapsed roofs, or exposed electrical wires in their home. It is indefensible that was the case for military families. A Department of Defense Inspector General report last year found that the Department is dragging their feet on two major reforms that Congress passed to address these deplorable conditions: creating a public complaint database for tenants and a Tenants Bill of Rights. Two years in, and neither of these have been done. So Mr. Lowman, I know these things take time to stand up. But will you make sure that a publicly available complaint database is created this year? I mean 2022. 

Christopher Lowman: Senator, thank you. So I couldn't agree more that our service members deserve the right to live in housing that is safe, it is suitable and it is healthy. 

Senator Warren: Good. Thank you. I just want a commitment here. Am I gonna get this database in 2022?

Mr. Lowman: Senator the DSD just created a new position and Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Environment, Energy and installations. So that portfolio has been removed from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment’s portfolio. What I can commit to, if confirmed, is working with the ASD-EINE for a smooth and deliberate transition of resources and as well as the policies and personnel to make sure that these–

Senator Warren: But you can’t put your name behind getting this done? It's a database, a complaint database. This is not rocket science. And we're in year three of people who want to be able to tell you about things like rats and insects and black mold. I would think that the military would want to know about this.

Mr. Lowman: Senator, I agree and I work very closely with the ASD EINE to make sure that…that that organization makes progress on this.

Senator Warren: Well, I would like to hear you make your commitment on this. And the same is true for a tenants’ Bill of Rights. Is this also just a lateral pass to somebody else?

Mr. Lowman: No, ma'am. I'll commit to my personal involvement in better understanding the issues surrounding–

Senator Warren: I appreciate the involvement, I want a commitment to get it done. We’re in year three. This is not hard.

Mr. Lowman: Senator, I certainly understand your question. And if confirmed as the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, I will do everything in my authority to make sure that these two things get completed this year. 

Senator Warren: Well, I’m…I'm not doing great here, but I've got more requests, but I'll put those in my QFRs. 

Let me ask another line of questions here. Mr. Storch, you’ve been nominated to serve as the DOD inspector general, which makes you the Pentagon’s top watchdog. Your job, obviously, is going to be to shine a light on waste, and misconduct, and abuses of power – and also to tell us when officials or organizations are thwarting your investigations or trying to hide your findings from the public. And there are a lot of ways that might happen, but I want to talk to you about the one that keeps me up at night right now. I’m becoming very concerned about how much the Pentagon is keeping from the public through “pseudo-classification” – that is classifying something that doesn’t need to be kept secret, classifying it just so that there’s less public scrutiny. 

Mr. Storch, do you commit to notifying this committee if you believe that your work is being wrongfully restricted or pseudo-classified or over-classified? 

Honorable Robert Storch: Senator this is an area in which I do have some experience not necessarily with pseudo classification, but when I came on board, as the NSA-IT we weren't doing any public reporting at all at our office. As I say we basically just had a page on the agency site, which didn't have any content and we've worked hard to advance transparency in our oversight work there in the ways that I discussed in my opening statement, and worked very well with the agency to make sure that happens. And I've got to say we've gotten good cooperation…

Senator Warren: I– 

Mr. Storch:  with agency leadership. I'm going to work on that. I would work with the agency to make sure that it's done right. And if I have any problems, I absolutely wouldn't hesitate to come to the committee.

Senator Warren: That’s what I want to hear. You know I want to give you an example of where this pseudo-classification hinders the oversight process. 

Numerous investigations by the press, independent analysts, and civil society watchdogs have shown that our investigations into civilian casualties are seriously flawed. And that is probably too kind a statement, it’s a broken system. The D-O-D IG has looked into this as well. But many of the D-O-D IG’s findings about these failures are completely redacted. Not because they are classified, but because they’re marked “for official use only.” 

I suspect that more oversight from D-O-D IG would help us fix this broken system, but it’s not going to happen unless we enhance transparency significantly. So I appreciate your comments on this. I anticipate you're going to be a partner in getting this done. If you have problems, you're going to come talk to us and we'll get it straightened out. We have a right to know. The public has a right to know. 

Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you,