Sean Spicer got asked about the Carl Vinson mystery today. It was … well, it was sad. Spicer basically said ‘Oh, you misunderstood what we meant. Sucks to be you.’ (Actual quotes and more here.) That’s silly. Here’s what happened or rather what I think we can be fairly confident happened based on the totality of evidence and anonymous sources at the Pentagon reported in the press. (TPM’s Matt Shuham is just published a detailed timeline of the events in question here.)
A Carrier Strike Group, an armada of ships lead by an aircraft carrier, the modern capital ship, doesn’t turn around on a dime. I don’t mean that literally. I’m sure the armada of ships can make an immediate shift in direction if necessary. But these are big groups of ships, with thousands of seaman, a schedule of maneuvers, trainings, exercises, ports of call, etc. Changing plans and going somewhere else doesn’t necessarily mean literally turning around immediately and canceling everything that was planned. Making a significant short term scheduling change is a reasonably big deal in itself.
What seems to have happened is that the decision was made to send the carrier group back to waters around the Koreas. They didn’t cancel a planned exercise to the South but scrapped a port of call in Australia to get back to the waters around Korea and Japan more quickly. This was a significant change of plans and would have sent what seems to have been the intended signal – a bit of saber-rattling in the context of the current stand off between North Korea and the United States. My point is that the original Pentagon statements were reasonable descriptions of what was happening.
But then the White House and particularly the President said things that were much more direct and clearly, at best, misleading. What is key is that this does not seem to have been some intentional misdirection or ambiguity. The Korean Peninsula is not a war zone at the moment, thankfully. But there is a stand off and military assets are being used for a tactical-political purpose. Nation states don’t consider themselves bound to strict transparency in such cases, understandably. If we had learned later that the US had said something was happening which was not true to drive anxiety in North Korea, this would not be entirely surprising. But again, that does not seem to be what happened. It seems much more like the White House and the President got sloppy, didn’t know exactly what was happening and through sloppiness and bravado created an impression that simply wasn’t true.
There doesn’t seem to have been any one single misstatement, more a slow process of overstatement that led to erroneous information becoming assumed by everyone. Spicer is now saying it’s the press’s fault they misunderstood. But the publics and press in the region’s seem to have misunderstood too. And it even seems like the governments may have misunderstood. Those are the kinds of misunderstandings which, if not by design, it’s the US government’s responsibility to clarify.
And in fact a key point in the rhetorical escalation seems to have come from Spicer himself. On April 11th, Fox News Kevin Corke had this exchange with Spicer.
Q Putting that strike carrier group in the Sea of Japan, in that region, is that also a messaging circumstance? Or is that simply protective for our allies in Japan and Korea?
MR. SPICER: A carrier group is several things. The forward deployment is deterrence, presence. It’s prudent. But it does a lot of things. It ensures our — we have the strategic capabilities, and it gives the President options in the region.
But I think when you see a carrier group steaming into an area like that, the forward presence of that is clearly, through almost every instance, a huge deterrence. So I think it serves multiple capabilities.
So Corke asked a question with a factual premise and Spicer seemed to affirm that inaccurate factual premise and escalate it. Did Spicer just not know? It seems like he was simply carried along with the misunderstanding. The following day President Trump addressed the issue. But his statement wasn’t really clearly misleading as to timing. It just pumped up the decision to send the group back to the north. Asked by Fox News Channel’s Maria Bartiromo, “What are we doing right now in terms of North Korea?” Trump answered: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
Actually, the back and forth is weirder than that. Bartiromo asks him. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Then he talks about the Middle East. Then he says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Then he talks about it …
BARTIROMO: You redirected navy ships to go toward the Korean Peninsula.
What we are doing right now in terms of North Korea?
TRUMP: You never know, do you?
You never know.
BARTIROMO: That’s all (INAUDIBLE)…
TRUMP: You know I don’t think about the military.
TRUMP: I’m not like Obama, where they talk about in four months we’re waiting — we’re going to hit Mosul.
TRUMP: And in the meantime, they get ready and like you’ve never seen — look, they’re still fighting. Mosul was supposed to last for a week and now they’ve been fighting it for many months and so many more people died.
I don’t want to talk about it. We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you.
Looking at every, most of the escalating statements came from the White House or President Trump. But there’s a key exception. On the same day Spicer got into his exchange, April 11th, Secretary of Defense Mattis gave a briefing at the Pentagon at which he said the decision to send the Vinson Carrier Group north wasn’t tied to any particular event.
“As far as the movement of the (Carl) Vinson, she is stationed there in the Western Pacific for a reason, she operated freely, up and down the Pacific, and she is just on her way up there because that is where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”
Out of context, this is perhaps a bit ambiguous. “She is just on her way up there” can be a general reference to movements in the context of the group routinely moving around the Western Pacific. But notably there’s https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1148604/press-conference-by-secretary-mattis-and-gen-votel-in-the-pentagon-briefing-room/.
Q: (Inaudible) unusual for us to know about a ship movement in advance. That was sort of what — what got everyone’s attention. So why was that? I mean, why was it put out in advance? Was it just to signal to North Korea that there would be a show of presence there?
SEC. MATTIS: I believe it’s because she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise, and that’s what became public. We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise. [Sic: The ship’s port visit to Fremantle, Australia, was cancelled; the exercise with the Royal Australian navy is proceeding as planned.]
The paranthetical correction is from the Pentagon. But it’s from yesterday, according to a DOD spokesman – so after the news stories confirming that there had been confusion about the location of the carrier group.
Mattis’s references here make it clear there was at least some level of confusion from Mattis himself. It seems like he may have been unclear in his own mind whether or how much of the exercises were curtailed or canceled altogether. At a minimum, his comments were misleading. But again, they were mainly misleading in the context of inflated comments from the White House and the President.
At this point, what seems to have happened is that people at the planning and operational level started realizing that what was being discussed in the news (and maybe even privately with US allies) in the US and the region wasn’t really true. But they seem to have refrained from clarifying or contradicting these erroneous reports thinking that these public declarations were political decisions that weren’t which it wasn’t their place to contradict. So they didn’t.
Here’s a key passage from the story in Defense News that first reported that carrier group’s real whereabouts.
U.S. Navy officials in Pearl Harbor and Washington declined to comment on the ship’s movements, other than to confirm the April 15 movement through the Sunda Strait. Off the record, several officials expressed wonderment at the persistent reports that the Vinson was already nearing Korea. “We’ve made no such statement,” said one official.
Not contradicting what the White House was saying might make sense if it seemed like the White House was being deliberately misleading. It seems more like they were confused. At a minimum it seems clear that people at the operational level were quite aware that people on both sides of the Pacific were assuming something was true that was not true. At the end of the day, this looks like the product of confusion and miscommunication within the administration. That’s a problem. It didn’t have any cataclysmic effect in this case. But in a high stakes stand off mixed with gunboat diplomacy, it could have.