Nuclear Weapons

SecDef Defends New Policy on Limiting Media Access

07.09.10 | 4 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“I have grown increasingly concerned that we have become too lax, disorganized, and, in some cases, flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press,” said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, explaining why he had issued new guidance to regulate Pentagon interactions with the news media.

The new guidance (pdf), issued on July 2, requires advance notification and coordination with DoD Public Affairs before a Department official can speak to the media on a story that may have any “national or international implications.”

In the absence of such controls, Gates said at a July 8 press briefing, “personal views have been published as official government positions, and information has gone out that was inaccurate, incomplete or lacking in proper context.  Reports and other documents, including on sensitive subjects, are routinely provided to the press and other elements in this town before I or the White House know anything about them.  Even more worrisome, highly classified and sensitive information has been divulged without authorization or accountability.”

“My hope and expectation is that this new guidance will improve the quality of press engagement by ensuring that the people the media talk to can speak with accuracy and authority.  This should not infringe or impede the flow of accurate and timely information to you or to the public.  That is not my intent, nor will I tolerate it.”

Despite the Secretary’s assurance, however, it seems practically certain that the new guidance will significantly impede the flow of information to the press and will complicate the already difficult task of probing beneath the official surface of events.

The Gates memorandum seems to reflect a view of the press as a conduit for “official government positions” that are “authorized” and placed “in proper context.”  But everyone knows that the most interesting and important news stories often begin with unofficial and unauthorized statements that are lacking in context and may even be inaccurate.  It is the reporter’s job to validate them, assess their significance, place them in context and communicate them, and if the results appear “before I or the White House know anything about them,” so much the better.

That is what the Washington Post did in its series on neglect of veterans’ health at Walter Reed Hospital, and that is what USA Today did in its reporting on the casualties resulting from delayed acquisition of MRAP armored vehicles.

Secretary Gates knows this, and he acknowledged the importance of those particular stories.  “The reality is, stories in the press, and you’ve heard me say this before — whether it was the stories on the treatment of outpatient wounded warriors at Walter Reed in the Washington Post or stories about MRAPs in USA Today — have been a spur to action for me in various areas,” he said.

But the key point is that those stories did not emerge from authorized interviews or official accounts. They had to be pieced together from partial, incomplete and unauthorized sources.  That’s one of the things that made them great.

“If everybody’s following the spirit and the letter of the memo,” an astute but unidentified reporter asked Secretary Gates, “are you confident that stories like stories about the MRAP and the Walter Reed problems would emerge the way they did?”

“Actually, I am,” Secretary Gates said at yesterday’s press briefing, “and it’s largely because of my confidence in the persistence and the skills of the people sitting in front of me.”  But now that persistence and those skills will also be needed to penetrate the new barriers that the Gates memo has created.

If the Pentagon genuinely valued groundbreaking news stories that could serve as a corrective “spur to action,” then it would inquire into the specific conditions of access and disclosure that makes such stories possible, and it would then seek to foster those conditions more broadly throughout the Department.  The new DoD guidance on interaction with the media is a step in the opposite direction.

The July 2 Gates memo (which was first reported by the New York Times) also declared categorically that “Leaking of classified information is against the law, cannot be tolerated, and will, when proven, lead to the prosecution of those found to be engaged in such activity.”

On July 5, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning was charged (pdf) with the unauthorized transfer and disclosure of classified records, including the classified video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that was posted online in April of this year by the WikiLeaks web site.

Secretary Gates said that he was not familiar with the underlying investigation of the Manning case or whether it constituted a serious breach, and that he had not determined whether remedial security measures were needed.

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