When should the public know everything?

The military press obtained what the Navy wanted to remain hidden. But should the big report, put together by a rear admiral, have been kept secret?

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Two million dollars — It’s barely a rounding error in the annals of government spending. But the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency got $2 million in the just-signed 2019 spending bill. Justice IG Michael Horowitz, CIGIE chairman, says it will go towards upgrading Oversight.gov. Horowitz wants a list of recommendations, an inbox for would-be whistleblowers and other enhancements to increase transparency.

Along with the Government Accountability Office, CIGIE and the individual IG offices across the government release hundred of reports annually. These reports detail management errors and deficiencies large and small.

Having read or skimmed many reports over the years, I’ve learned you sometimes have to read deep to get past what happened to the why and how. The bigger the event, often the bigger and more mysterious the why. The latter sometimes take a while to see the light of day.

In recent months, several published reports have detailed what happened in the case of the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald that was rammed by a container ship in 2017. The Navy Times — a respected commercial publication independent of the Navy — obtained the classified version of the Navy’s investigation into the fatal collision. Navy Times and ProPublica subsequently published long, detail-rich accounts that were only abbreviated in the Navy’s own unclassified release.

We know now that the collision resulted from long-standing systemic issues going up and beyond even the 7th Fleet Command. Basically everything was wrong — a dangerous maintenance backlog, outdated and broken information technology, an inexperienced and under-trained crew working while drowsy with fatigue, poor command and morale, and spotty communication. It would have been a miracle if the ship survived its outing. It had experienced two near misses already.

My question is, how much should the public know in a case like this?

The Navy’s unclassified report is tough so far as it goes. But it starts with the ship’s commander on down. The secret version, and the stories based on it, go into policies and practices originating at the Navy Yard and Pentagon in Washington. People’s reputations and privacy are a stake.

The captain, Commander Bryce Benson, nearly died in the collision (he would have been the 8th sailor killed) when the prow of the commercial ship punctured and mashed up his cabin. We now know an uncomfortable level of detail about his (and the others’) physical and mental condition before and after the collision.

The classified report at least shows the Navy didn’t try to hide the truth from itself. But should the big report, put together by a rear admiral, have been kept secret?

The incident touched off courts martial and international legal proceedings. Navy Times reported the Navy’s report was classified because of expected litigation they intended to pursue and defend against. So there’s at least a rationale for it to have been classified.

On the other hand, the taxpayers who pay for a $150 billion per year Navy have a strong interest in how it’s managed and operated. The public has a right to know how the Navy handles its crews and equipment. And how it holds people accountable. Panic on the bridge, a sleeping commander and broken sensors may end with the captain, but they don’t start there.

Perhaps the internal report has frequencies and other details of radar and communications operations. It would be easy enough to redact those details.

Bottom line: The Navy gets credit for being unsparing on itself. But this is a case when greater transparency can speed the fixes without compromising national security.

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