WASHINGTON — The Defense Department needs to cooperate with the media, but needs to clean up its act in how it goes about it, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
During a Pentagon news conference, Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the secretary’s recent memo to the department’s civilian and military leaders on interaction with the media.
“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,” Gates said. “None of that has changed.”
His memo was not about how the media does its job, Gates said, but about improving leaders’ interactions with reporters. He said his memo is a reaffirmation of an existing policy “that was being followed selectively, at best.”
The secretary has been concerned about Defense Department media interaction for some time, he said. “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,” he explained.
Mullen stressed that the memo is not meant to muzzle military personnel. “It is not in any way, shape or form meant to preclude the proper engagement with the press,” the chairman said.
But military and civilian personnel need to follow certain guidelines when they interact with members of the media. Mullen said. “[The memo] is to actually, in great part, emphasize guidance that has been out there for an extensive period of time, but we’ve just walked away from,” he said.
Defense Department civilian and military officials have spoken outside their areas of expertise, the admiral said, and reports and other documents — including many on sensitive subjects — are routinely provided to the media before the secretary or the president are informed.
“Even more worrisome,” Mullen said, “highly classified and sensitive information has been divulged without authorization or accountability.”
Gates said he hopes the new guidance will not choke off media access, but rather that it 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,” he told reporters. “That is not my intent, nor will I tolerate it.” But the reminder was needed, the secretary added.
“Over the last two years, I have lost a first-rate Central Command commander and an outstanding commander of [the International Security Assistance Force] in Afghanistan due to their own missteps in dealing with the media,” he said. “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,” he continued.
Gates said he is frustrated and concerned with the situation and hopes these reminders of the standing rules will help the department communicate with the American people via the media.
“Effectively communicating what we do and how we do it remains a top priority for me,” Gates said. “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.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)