Pentagon rescinds provisions of media pass questionnaire
VIRGINIA–The Department of Defense has agreed to modify a new accreditation procedure that had required journalists seeking Pentagon building passes to answer a lengthy questionnaire including questions about criminal, substance abuse and financial histories, and undergo a background check.
Reporters from the private newspaper Army Times who sought Pentagon access in July 1996 found that the Department of Defense had begun requiring press pass applicants to fill out a questionnaire asking them to list their relatives and to provide information regarding their residence and employment history for the past seven years, financial backgrounds, and criminal and substance abuse histories. The form is the same one that the Department of Defenses uses for individuals who have received a conditional offer of employment for a position of public trust within the government or who contract with the government.
In an early October letter to the assistant secretary for public affairs, the Reporters Committee objected to the new credentialing policy as an infringement on the media’s ability to obtain access to public information and an invasion of privacy. The Reporters Committee argued that journalists are neither employees nor contractors of the government, but act independently to report on and critique the government for the benefit of the public.
The Reporters Committee stated that in light of the media’s role as watchdog, government inquiry into journalists’ backgrounds had a potential chilling effect on those seeking Pentagon credentials and how they do their job. Finally, the Reporters Committee asserted that the form was needlessly invasive and onerous, and that the questions were irrelevant to the issue of whether applicants qualify as bona fide journalists for credentialing purposes.
In a letter of response received in mid-December, Clifford Bernath, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, stated that, after consulting with the department’s security personnel, the department decided it would no longer require journalists to respond to nine questions on the form related to journalists’ criminal, substance abuse and financial histories.
Bernath added that a building pass is not the same as a media pass, and that any member of the media can gain entry to the Pentagon by calling the Directorate for Defense Information. According to Bernath, the more stringent policy applies only to journalists seeking “regular and frequent access to the Pentagon.”