For more than two years, the Navy’s intelligence chief has been stuck with a major handicap: He’s not allowed to know any secrets.
Worried that Branch was on the verge of being indicted, Navy leaders suspended his access to classified materials. They did the same to one of his deputies, Rear Adm. Bruce F. Loveless, the Navy’s director of intelligence operations.
More than 800 days later, neither Branch nor Loveless has been charged. But neither has been cleared, either. Their access to classified information remains blocked.
Although the Navy transferred Loveless to a slightly less sensitive post, it kept Branch in charge of its intelligence division. That has resulted in an awkward arrangement, akin to sending a warship into battle with its skipper stuck onshore.
Branch can’t meet with other senior U.S. intelligence leaders to discuss sensitive operations, or hear updates from his staff about secret missions or projects. It can be a chore just to set foot in colleagues’ offices; in keeping with regulations, they must conduct a sweep beforehand to make sure any classified documents are locked up.
Some critics have questioned how smart it is for the Navy to retain an intelligence chief with such limitations, for so long, especially at a time when the Pentagon is confronted by crises in the Middle East, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and other hotspots.
“I have never heard of anything as asinine, bizarre or stupid in all my years,” Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and historian, said in an interview.
In an op-ed in Navy Times last fall, Polmar urged Navy leaders to replace Branch and Loveless for the sake of national security. He cited complaints from several unnamed Navy officers that “intelligence management is being hampered at a moment of great turmoil.”
In a statement, Rear Adm. Dawn Cutler, the Navy’s chief spokeswoman, said the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation of Branch and Loveless “has not impacted the Navy’s ability to manage operations.” She said the two still perform managerial duties while their civilian and military deputies handle the classified aspects of their jobs.
Branch and Loveless declined interview requests placed through the Navy.
In addition to serving as chief of Navy intelligence, Branch holds the title of the Navy’s chief information officer, oversees the Navy’s 55,000-member Information Dominance Corps and is in charge of many cybersecurity programs.