Defense & National Security

Pentagon forced to talk fast after Obama contradicts position on closing bases

Pentagon forced to talk fast after Obama contradicts position on closing bases

Since the release of the White House FY 2013 Defense budget proposal in January, Pentagon officials have been openly discussing the possibility of adding a round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), an unpopular but routine and effective way to trim costs and increase efficiency. But in a recent interview with a local Virginia radio station, President Barack Obama appeared to camouflage the truth about BRAC plans in an apparent attempt to salvage popularity points in military-heavy regions.

The last round of BRAC was executed between 2005 and 2011, closing 13 military installations and combining or realigning a dozen more. Another closure cycle was not due to begin until 2015, but military officials have said spending cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act could prompt the closing of more bases in 2013.

In an exclusive July interview with WAVY, a radio station covering the military-dense region of Hampton Roads, Va., Obama appeared to forget all about that plan.

“Do you support another BRAC closing bases, possibly hurting Hampton Roads?” WAVY reporter Andy Fox asked the president, according to a transcript.

“You know, I don’t think now is the time for BRAC, we just went through some base closings and the strategy we have does not call for that,” Obama replied.

Among those who noticed the sudden change in message was Republican Congressman Randy Forbes (Va.), who penned a letter to Obama in July asking for clarification regarding the new message.

“Your statement is inconsistent with those from Secretary Panetta, other members of your administration and budget documentation that all requested another two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure,” Forbes wrote. “We would appreciate if you could confirm that the Administration at this time is no longer seeking to close additional military installations.”

Forbes’ communications director, Wes Battle, said the Congressman wondered if Obama had flipped on the issue, or had just committed a messaging gaffe in an effort not to lose the support of military communities.

“It wouldn’t seem like the venue. If you were going to take BRAC out of the budget, you wouldn’t do it in a local Virginia-affiliated interview,” Battle said,  meaning Obama would be more likely to pick a national venue to announce a decision with such broad implications.

Whatever the case, Obama’s revelation appeared to force Defense Secretary Leon Panetta out of a silence on the issue he has maintained fairly consistently in order to back the president up.

“It’s now clear, obviously, that there will not be a round of BRAC authorized in 2013. And that’s no surprise,” Panetta announced on Monday at an Association of Defense Communities event in Monterey, Calif. “…I mean, we have to put it forward, we’ve got to make it clear that we’ve got to have the argument, but I understand how tough it would be.”

The prospect of additional BRAC rounds has been wildly unpopular among conservative lawmakers and most members of Congress in either party with a military base in their district: the closing and realignment of military installations typically spells lost jobs and a negative economic trickle-down in the communities surrounding the bases.

In February, 42 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle wrote a letter to Obama urging him to hold off on his base closure plans.

“With threats around the globe and during a time when every defense dollar is scarce, what is the justification for spending on additional base closures?” they wrote. “How does this approach make our country safer?”

A Republican amendment to the 2013 Defense spending bill that would expressly prohibit the use of federal funds for a FY 13 BRAC round passed the House and now awaits consideration by the Senate.

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