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Laboratory orders employees not to speak to press

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Oct 23, 2002    

Laboratory orders employees not to speak to press

  • “No comment” is all reporters are going to get out of a Department of Energy laboratory employees since a memo from the director told them to refer all information requests to the public affairs office for the sake of “national security.”

A U.S. Department of Energy weapons laboratory recently issued a memorandum directing its employees to respond to all media requests with “no comment.”

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s director, Michael R. Anastasio, distributed the memo in response to inquiries, stating that the lab could be “deluged” with requests by the news media on the status of “weapons-of-mass-destruction programs in Iraq,” “the implications for the threat of catastrophic terrorism worldwide,”as well as the lab’s involvement and capabilities in these matters.

The lab, in Livermore, Calif. conducts technical work for the federal government ranging from basic physics to nuclear weapons design. Its involvement in the “war on terror” with biodefense and intelligence data have made it a resource for reporters, especially as the threat of military action with Iraq looms, San Jose Mercury News reporter Dan Stober said.

Stober added that the laboratory is a story of interest itself, with an annual budget of more than $1 billion, and staffed by thousands of employees.

Anastasio told the lab’s associate directors to be “vigilant” in responding to requests in the manner the Sept. 13 memo outlines and to be “rigorous” in avoiding comment under informal and confidential circumstances. Employees were directed to respond “no comment” to information requests and to inform the public affairs office of all inquiries.

“National security is truly at stake,” Anastasio wrote.

Stober, who has covered the lab for 15 years, calls the memo “unprecedented.” He said nobody at the lab, including the public affairs office, want to talk about these subjects and that some sources he quoted in the past no longer want to speak on the record since the memo was distributed.

The lab is operated by the University of California system but adheres to federal rules protecting information specified as classified or highly sensitive, UC spokesperson Jeff Garberson said. He said that any lab employee with security clearance knows they cannot discuss classified information.

“This memo doesn’t say, ‘Don’t talk about classified information,’ they’re saying, ‘Don’t talk,'” Stober said.

According to Garberson, such a memo is rare, but so is possible preparation for military action.

The lab’s director of public affairs, Susan Houghton said: “The memo is being misinterpreted.”

Houghton said the questions posed to the lab by the media include opinions, speculations and “what if” scenario analysis on their ongoing projects. Such questions and policy-related questions, she said, are always turned over to the policy makers.

The memo explained that because reporters know individual employees personally or by name that they may receive direct requests. However, Stoughton said it was common for the lab to coordinate media responses through the public affairs office.

Stober said that access to information at the lab gives the media and, in turn, the public, the information needed to discern the seriousness and immediacy for such things as the nuclear capabilities in Iraq.

“This memo squelches that,” Stober said.

Stoughton said she is not aware of objections by employees to the memo, nor aware of any agency that has been “denied” information.

Congress, congressional staff, non-governmental organization and other interested parties are also addressed in the memo with instructions on how to appropriately route their requests.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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