Telling the truth can be a dangerous proposition for government workers and members of the military. On November 10, 2014, Navy Times reported that a senior Navy intelligence official Captain James Fanell, the director of intelligence and information operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), has been removed from that position by his boss, Admiral Harry Harris. Capt. Fanell was subsequently reassigned within the command. He is a California native and a career intelligence officer for nearly 29 years. Capt. Fanell was responsible for providing damage assessments for Pacific Fleet during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
Capt. Fanell was abruptly removed, after making comments that were considered to be too provocative and perhaps too honest. His insights about Chinese military hostility stirred up an international controversy. During his public appearance in February 2014, Capt. Fanell warned about recent Chinese amphibious exercises, which led to naval intelligence assessment that China’s strategy was to be able to launch a “short, sharp war” with Japan.
“[We believe] the [People’s Liberation Army] has been given the new task to be able to conduct a short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea following with what can only be expected [as] a seizure of the Senkakus or even southern Ryukyu [islands],” Capt. Fanell reportedly stated.
He also asserted that China is at the center of virtually every maritime territorial dispute in the Asia-Pacific, engaging in a blatant land-grab of islands that would enhance their exclusive economic rights to natural resources and fishing.
“I do not know how Chinese intentions could be more transparent,” Capt. Fanell stressed. He also added that while Beijing describes its activities as the “protection of maritime rights,” this was really “a Chinese euphemism for the coerced seizure of coastal rights of China’s neighbors.” Deceptive descriptions are reminiscent to Russia’s assertions that it is “protecting its interests,” when the country encroaches upon and annexes the land and seaports of the neighboring countries.
Capt. Fanell’s comments ran counter to the Pentagon’s talking points on “building ties” with the increasingly forceful Chinese Navy. Top defense officials, including the 4-star head of the Army and the Pentagon spokesman, rushed to dispel Capt. Fanell’s frank assessment about a closely watched region. His subsequent removal is the latest turmoil in the Navy’s intelligence community, which showcases that contradicting Pentagon public statements is detrimental to one’s career in the military.
Admiral Jon Greenert, who has made engagement with China one of his top priorities as chief of naval operations, said at a forum in Newport, Rhode Island: “If you talk about it openly, you cross the line and unnecessarily antagonize … You probably have a sense about how much we trade with that country. It’s astounding. “
U.S. Pacific Fleet refused to disclose any other details as to Capt. Fanell’s reassignment, stating that he was not a commanding officer and therefore was entitled to increased privacy. This “privacy protection” is reminiscent of police informing suspects that they are being handcuffed “for their own safety.”
In an approach typical in the government’s handling of whistleblowers, Capt. Fanell is now being “internally investigated” for his alleged “mishandling of classified information and fostering a negative command climate.”
Instead of being removed and investigated, Capt. Fanell should be positively acknowledged for his sober and insightful analysis of a touchy subject. China is a growing threat to its neighbors and to the interests of the United States, which is only exacerbated by the country’s strong ties to hostile Russia.