USA — Gates Emphasizes Media Engagement Rules

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)