Following Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s unfortunate interview with Rolling Stone, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a memo to the department’s leaders placing strict – although ambiguous – controls on public release of information.
The secretary’s note reportedly said he was concerned because the department had grown lax in following long-established procedures for engagement with the media.
“We have far too many people talking outside of channels,” an Armed Forces Press Service release quotes Gates. “(They provide) information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized or uninformed …”
Leaking classified information is against the law, Gates stressed, but the secretary also prohibited the release of “unclassified but sensitive, pre-decisional or otherwise restricted information unless specifically authorized.”
Gates also called for tight, before-the-fact coordination in advance of releasing information or agreeing to media interviews “on issues of national or international importance.” The goal, he asserted, is to make sure “everyone is aware – up and down the chain of command – that these things are happening.”
Although the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs will issue more specific guidelines in the near future, those guidelines are unlikely to change the atmospherics created by McChrystal’s subsequent firing and Gates’ sweeping indictment.
First of all, military leaders are not stupid. Why engage in an activity that might get them fired? Many already prefer a root canal over engaging the media. The public’s right to know – however that might be perceived – likely will take a distant back seat to self-preservation.
Secondly, the Gates directive offers a visceral threat of Monday morning quarterbacking – the potential for a profound “oops” factor that can’t be ignored. That is, can you always know in advance that coverage of an event will not have national implications? Not really. So the tendency will be to over correct.
Moreover, the ambiguous nature of the message will undoubtedly cause many commanders and civilian directors to steer well clear of any controversy … if indeed they say anything at all even under the most innocent of circumstances.
Gates’ postscript in announcing the new policy undoubtedly brought suppressed chuckles from Pentagon reporters. The secretary reportedly said during a July 7 press conference that he hoped the new guidance would actually “improve the quality of press engagement.”
“This should not infringe or impede the flow of accurate and timely information to you or to the public,” he was quoted. “That’s not my intent, nor will I tolerate it.”
But they probably lost it when – at the same press conference – Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen added: “The memo is not meant to muzzle military personnel. It is not in any way, shape or form meant to preclude proper engagement with the press.”
Evidently, neither Gates nor Mullen have read Mark Twain’s account of the cat that sat on a hot burner. “He will never sit on a hot burner again and that’s good,” Twain noted. “The trouble is he will never again sit on a cold one either.”
While the new directive will likely frustrate the media in the short term, the longer-term effects could be even more harmful to the military.
Robins Air Force Base, for example, has some 25,000 people clustered in a relatively small area during a normal workday. Things happen. People talk. Negative news always gets out. Now, the base’s timely ability to counter and balance that news – oftentimes with a much truer story – will be hampered or effectively shut down. That’s not good for public perception, image or building support.
On a broader scale, the defense establishment may face an unprecedented siege in the days ahead as federal budgets tighten and threat perceptions dangerously narrow. Even in times of recession – perhaps even more so in times of worldwide economic upheaval – we need to keep our guard up, our powder dry and our forces properly sized and modernized.
To make that happen, the public must understand the threat and what’s needed to meet it. Unfortunately, the Gates memo will make that much more difficult.