Interpreting the Pentagon’s new media policy

The Pentagon tells me that it disputes my characterization of its new guidance on the release of information as one that will constrict the flow of news and information to the public and Congress.

I mentioned these rules in passing in this week’s column “Behind the media contractors’ veil” to offer context for the military’s practice of shielding the identities of some media-services contractors, including large U.S. firms, by designating them in public records as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”

“The section about ‘tightening the flow of information’ is flat-out wrong,” Marine Col. Dave Lapan, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations, told me by e-mail. “Secretary [Robert M.] Gates spoke directly about this issue at his recent press briefing (July 8). Specifically, he said, ‘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.’”

I respectfully disagree on the issue of what effect the memo will have. I believe it is far more likely that Public Affairs officers and others down the chain of command will be inclined to read, interpret and seek to follow the Secretary’s published rules and guidance offered in his July 2 memo rather than comments he made a week later to reporters described as angry over the memo. And the way I read the memo is that it will have a chilling effect on the free flow of information.

Readers can make up their own minds.

Below is the full text of the Secretary’s July 2 memo and attached rules, as well as an excerpt of a Pentagon transcript of the Secretary’s remarks to reporters on July 8. All were kindly provided by Colonel Lapan for posting at my request.

The Secretary’s memo also included a copy of Directive 5122.05, the Defense Department’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, which is linked to here and below, in his memo.

Readers are encouraged to post their own interpretations and analyses in the comments section of this blog.

— — —

WASHINGTON, DC 20301-1000

JUL 2 2010


SUBJECT: Interaction with the Media

It is important that the news media have appropriate access to many aspects of
DoD activities and operations. Consistent with applicable laws and procedures, we are
obliged to ensure that the information provided to them is timely, accurate, credible, and
consistent. I have said many times that we must strive to be as open, accessible, and
transparent as possible.

At the same time, I am concerned that the Department has grown lax in how we
engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures. We
have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing
information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformed
by the perspective of those who are most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra-agency policy processes, operations, and activities.

We must deal with the media in a manner that safeguards information protected by
law and that maintains the integrity of the government’s internal decision making
processes. 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.
Revealing unclassified, but sensitive, pre-decisional, or otherwise restricted information
is also prohibited unless specifically authorized.

Current DoD policy, outlined by Directive 5122.05, “Assistant Secretary of
Defense for Public Affairs,” (attached) states that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of
Defense for Public Affairs is the sole release authority for official DoD information to
news media in Washington, and that all media activities must be coordinated through
appropriate public affairs channels. This policy is, all too often, ignored. Accordingly, we must enhance our internal coordination mechanisms to ensure that Department officials are aware of the most current departmental and inter-agency information and perspective on the topic at hand when they engage the media. We need to ensure that, as they do so, we avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications caused by insufficient situational awareness.

Accordingly, prior to interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications, all component leaders or their public affairs officers must notify OSD Public Affairs which, in turn and as
appropriate, will ensure that senior Department officials with the relevant overall
knowledge and situational awareness have been consulted.

I have asked the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs to work with
OSD component heads, military department heads, and combatant commanders to
implement the attached additional guidance.

Robert M. Gates]

As stated

• Leaders of OSD components, military departments and combatant
commands will coordinate directly or via designated representatives the
release of official Department of Defense information which may have
national or international implications, both internally and with OSD/PA.

• OSD components, military departments and combatant commands will
review their respective organizational staffing framework to assure those
delegated command release authority have the experience, acumen, and
perspective necessary to responsibly fulfill the obligations of coordinating
media engagements .

• OSD components, military departments and combatant commands will
work with OSD Legislative Affairs and OSD Public Affairs to ensure
information of consequence provided to the Congress is synchronized with
OSD Public Affairs as appropriate.

• OSD Public Affairs will coordinate briefings for OSD components, military
departments and combatant commands on the rules, regulations and
responsibilities regarding the release of information to the public and the
media (attached).

• OSD component heads, military department heads and combatant
commanders will reinforce to their subordinates the importance of
protecting classified information from public disclosure, and the legal
consequences for those who do not.

— — —

Excerpt of remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to reporters on July 8, 2009, regarding media policy, as transcribed and provided by the Department of Defense:

I would also like to take this opportunity to say a few wordsabout the guidance I issued last week dealing with this department’s engagement with the news media.

For starters, when I took this job more than three and a half years ago, I spent my first few months on the job telling military audiences that the press was not the enemy and that to treat it as such was counterproductive and self-defeating. Accordingly, in my approach to media relations I’ve attempted to be as straightforward and cooperative as possible and encouraged this department’s leaders to do the same.

None of that has changed.

In short, last week’s memo was not about how the media does its job but about how this department’s leadership does ours. It is not a change of policy but a reaffirmation of an existing policy that was being followed selectively at best. It reflected the fact that for some time now, long before the recent Rolling Stone article, 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.

As a result, 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.

An additional personal observation. Over the last two years, I have lost a first-rate Central Command commander and an outstanding commander of ISAF in Afghanistan due to their own missteps in dealing with the media. I’ve had to recall a combatant commander to Washington for a verbal reprimand for speaking out inappropriately on a sensitive foreign-policy issue. I’ve had two very different presidents each on several occasions express concern to me about senior Defense officials, both civilian and military, speaking out inappropriately on foreign-policy issues.

These instances together with my own frustration — with premature disclosures of personnel, budget and other options under consideration — led me to conclude several weeks ago that we need greater coordination and discipline.

Effectively communicating what we do and how we do it remains a top priority for me. In fact, I consider it my duty. It’s a responsibility I have, not only to the commander-in-chief and to you in the media, but to the American people. I take it very seriously. And I expect everyone else in this department to do the same.

This column was originally published in Stars and Stripes on July 15, 2010.

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