In an Department of Defense memo sent last week to officials and the news media, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas B. Wilson reaffirmed the Pentagon’s effort to curb the flow of leaked or otherwise unauthorized information to the news media. His effort is in response to an earlier plea from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to tighten media access to the Pentagon by requiring that all department officials notify the Department of Defense's Office of Public Affairs prior to any communication with the news media or the public.
In his July 2 memo, Gates expressed his frustration with the recent leaking of information, saying, “I am concerned that the Department has grown lax in how we engage with the media. . . . 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.”
Gates’ principal focus in his memo is ensuring that all department officials possess accurate and up-to-date department information, meaning it reflects the opinions of the public affairs office, before speaking with the press, in order to “avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications caused by insufficient situational awareness.”
Wilson stressed the importance of Gates’ request, warning that “those who provide classified or sensitive, pre-decisional information to the press without authorization . . . will be held accountable.”
In response to this new policy, many reporters covering the military and the Pentagon — both in the U.S. and embedded abroad — have begun to worry about the impact it can have on their ability to accurately report the news.
“If the policy has the impact of stopping [public affairs offices] and others from talking with the media, it is unreasonable and contrary to the mission of the military in a democratic society,” says Military Reporters and Editors Vice President Don North. “Reporters are concerned with accuracy and with speed in keeping the public informed. Anything that slows the news process or separates the news [from the public] by layers of bureaucrats . . . is not in the public interest.”
In addition to slowing down the reporting of news, North also believes the Pentagon’s new policy could actually lead to more leaks, rather than stifling them. “When information is not free flowing or not readily available, it creates an atmosphere where leaks are more prevalent. I think that what [the Department of Defense is] doing is the opposite of what they had intended," he said.
Military Reporters and Editors co-founder Sig Christenson, who has traveled to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan nine times since Sept. 11, 2001, says he finds this new policy “troubling.” He believes Wilson’s warning against providing “pre-decisional information” could silence military officials from releasing vital knowledge to reporters, thereby watering down the news the public receives about wartime operations.
“The bottom line is if you don’t know what’s really happening, what you have is a story that puts their fables into print, and that’s not what I’m here for,” he said.
Christenson believes this policy would not only lessen public knowledge about military actions, but it can also be harmful to the well-being of soldiers. He cites several examples in which he believes reporters’ ability to obtain information from military personnel has been vital to troop safety, such as the 2007 Washington Post report on the patient neglect scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“If the new policy was in place, would those soldiers have talked with The Washington Post and would we have learned of the abysmal conditions some of those wounded warriors endured?” Christenson wrote by e-mail. “Journalists reporting on the military always advocate for their readers but, in so doing, often indirectly become advocates for their subjects — in this case wounded soldiers. That is key to the watchdog function of reporters and editors.”
The department, however, believes a balance must be made between providing public information and protecting the security of American troops. Regarding his relationship with the press, Wilson said in an interview with the Post that he seeks “to provide as much press access as possible. My responsibility is to be as timely, transparent and accurate as I can. But I'm also responsible for ensuring that the welfare and security of the men and women in uniform are protected and respected.”
He stated in his memo that he will meet with department officials later this month to develop a strategy for increased coordination between various Pentagon departments in order to prevent further information leaks, as Gates requested in his memo.
But with a continued tightening of media access, military reporters like Christenson believe they are being obstructed from providing a significant public service.
“Those of us who go to the war zone write the first drafts of history, and that’s not a small thing,” he said.