USA — Gates Issues Memo to Leaders on Media Engagement

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2010 — In a memo to senior civil­ian and mil­i­tary lead­ers, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates reit­er­at­ed the need for lead­ers to take media engage­ment seri­ous­ly, and to stay with­in their lev­els of knowl­edge.

The memo, issued the after­noon of July 2, and was the cul­mi­na­tion of weeks of dis­cus­sion with­in the Pen­ta­gon on leader inter­ac­tion with the media.

In the memo, the sec­re­tary said he is con­cerned that the depart­ment has grown lax in fol­low­ing long-estab­lished rules and pro­ce­dures for engage­ment 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 by the per­spec­tive of those who are most knowl­edge­able about and account­able for inter- and intra-agency pol­i­cy, process­es and activ­i­ties,” Gates wrote in the memo.

Gates wants to ensure that lead­ers safe­guard clas­si­fied and sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion, said Pen­ta­gon spokesman Marine Col. David Lapan. Leak­ing clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion is against the law, Gates said. But his memo stress­es that lead­ers also must be care­ful with unclas­si­fied infor­ma­tion. “Reveal­ing unclas­si­fied, but sen­si­tive, pre-deci­sion­al, or oth­er­wise restrict­ed infor­ma­tion is also pro­hib­it­ed unless specif­i­cal­ly autho­rized,” Gates says in the memo.

The sec­re­tary also wants to ensure that lead­ers speak­ing to the media know what they are talk­ing about before they open their mouths. “The oth­er ele­ment of it is those who are talk­ing to the media are doing so with full knowl­edge of that which they speak,” Lapan said. Those speak­ing with the media should stay in their lanes, and not opine on areas total­ly out­side their areas of exper­tise, Lapan added.

The memo also seeks to ensure that all major media engage­ments are prop­er­ly coor­di­nat­ed, “so every­one is aware – up and down the chain of com­mand – that these things are hap­pen­ing,” Lapan said.

The Gates memo gives his broad intent to civil­ian and mil­i­tary lead­ers. Experts in the Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense for Pub­lic Affairs will issue spe­cif­ic imple­men­ta­tion guid­ance in the near future, Lapan said.

The memo and result­ing imple­men­ta­tion guid­ance are not in response to the “Run­away Gen­er­al” sto­ry in Rolling Stone mag­a­zine, Lapan said. Fol­low­ing the appear­ance of that arti­cle, Army Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal resigned as the com­man­der of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force in Afghanistan.

The memo is not intend­ed to squelch any inter­ac­tion with the media, and should have no effect on the day-to-day activ­i­ties of reporters, the colonel said. If there is an inci­dent in Afghanistan, for exam­ple, reporters still will be able to get the who, what, where, when, why or how facts from the com­mands, he said. Like­wise, base com­man­ders will not have to get pri­or autho­riza­tion to speak with reporters about local inci­dents, poli­cies or hap­pen­ings.

But pri­or to grant­i­ng requests for inter­views or oth­er media engage­ments with pos­si­ble nation­al or inter­na­tion­al impli­ca­tions, offi­cials need to noti­fy Defense Depart­ment pub­lic affairs offi­cials of the event.

“This office can cer­tain­ly advise com­man­ders and oth­ers that planned engage­ments either may not be in the best inter­ests or have the best tim­ing,” Lapan said. Depart­ment offi­cials want to ensure that those speak­ing have the lat­est infor­ma­tion and under­stand the most cur­rent pol­i­cy, he added.

Defense pub­lic affairs offi­cials can rec­om­mend against a com­man­der engag­ing with media on a sub­ject, but can­not for­bid it. Com­man­ders own the pub­lic affairs pro­gram for their units or areas of respon­si­bil­i­ty, Lapan not­ed, and com­man­ders can choose to ignore Defense Depart­ment advice.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)