An unnamed foreign country communicated with planners of the now-scrapped Veterans Day military parade, according to documents obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request.
The parade was to run from the White House to the Capitol on November 11, the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I. President Donald Trump personally requested the military parade after witnessing a Bastille Day celebration in France, and members of all four armed forces were involved in the preparations. The parade polled poorly, with some, like Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., arguing that the event’s $92 million price tag was an unwarranted extravagance driven by the president’s ego. Ultimately, Trump canceled the parade in August, blaming D.C. leaders for the high cost.
Public Citizen requested communications between the Defense Department, the White House, and the National Park Service about the planning of the parade last September. After a protracted process, some of which remains under active litigation, the Pentagon responded with 76 pages of emails. Most of them reference the unnamed foreign government.
In correspondence with Public Citizen, compliance officials assigned to this case wrote, “This email contains a communication from a foreign government concerning the proposed parade. … We cannot provide more information beyond that we contacted the foreign government and they indeed requested, in writing, that we withhold the communication.”
A provision in the U.S. Code allows national security-related agencies to withhold “sensitive information of foreign governments” from Freedom of Information Act disclosures, if the foreign country requests the withholding. Compliance officials from the Department of Defense acknowledged that this request was made.
“When seeking information about President Trump’s military parade plans, I was surprised to find evidence of secret foreign meddling,” said Rick Claypool, research director with Public Citizen, the progressive consumer rights advocacy group that made the FOIA request. “Now one can’t help but wonder, Which foreign government was involved? And why did it insist its involvement be kept secret?”
While the emails are heavily redacted, they do reveal that the entire correspondence regarding the foreign government’s involvement took place from March 14 to 15 this year. The first email was written to Benedict Wolf, the National Security Council’s director of Western European and Nordic affairs, from an unnamed chief of the Western Europe Balkans division of the Department of the Air Force. “Below for your awareness,” the sender writes. “Understand you are seeking a POC (point of contact) in JS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) who is working the parade.”
The message that follows is completely redacted, but the Defense Department indicated to Public Citizen that the email “contains a communication from a foreign government concerning the proposed parade, which they have asked DoD to withhold.”
The subsequent emails constitute correspondence between a captain of the U.S. Coast Guard, an Air Force general, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, and captains and rear admirals of the U.S. Navy, along with Wolf and the unnamed Air Force division chief. While redacted, the emails appear to comprise deliberations over how to address the original communication from the unnamed foreign government. The Defense Department redacted these discussions because they involve “deliberative process,” citing a (b)(5) exemption, a favorite of compliance officers who endeavor keep information secret.
In addition, the Defense Department redacted the discussions because they would have revealed the foreign government’s involvement. “All of the redactions under b(5) … either reference the communication from the foreign government explicitly or contain recommendations that would indicate the substance of the communication, which the foreign government has requested withheld,” wrote the compliance officer to Public Citizen in explaining the redactions.
Since two of the officials involved specialize in Western Europe, the Nordics, and the Balkans, it’s relatively plausible that the unnamed foreign government hails from one of those regions. France is considered a particularly likely source, since the parade idea was inspired by French Bastille Day celebrations. “The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” said a military official cited by the Washington Post. But nothing else in the documents hints at the identity of the foreign interlocutor.
Trump may still get his Veterans Day parade: He’s going to France that day, to commemorate the World War I armistice.