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Gates Orders Tighter Control on Media Access to Military

  • Al Pessin

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is ordering top civilian and military officials in his department to coordinate more closely all contact with the media. This includes a requirement that requests for interviews or access to people or facilities be cleared through the secretary's Public Affairs Office. Officials say the directive has been in the works for months, but it was issued in the wake of the resignation two weeks ago of the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, because of critical comments about senior officials he and members of his staff made to a reporter.

The secretary's memorandum expresses concern about what he calls a "lax" approach that often violates or ignores "established rules and procedures." Gates says there are "far too many people talking to the media outside of official channels, sometimes providing information that is incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized or uninformed..."

To correct the situation, Gates calls for enhanced "internal coordination mechanisms," and specifically requires consultation with his Public Affairs office "prior to interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications." Officials acknowledge that would include anything about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The secretary's memo generated sharp questioning at the Pentagon's news briefing on Tuesday from reporters concerned that access will be restricted and troops will be afraid to talk to them without high-level approval.

Spokesman Colonel David Lapan said the memo mainly reinforces existing policy, and he predicted it will not significantly affect the access reporters have to commanders and troops in the field.

"It will not have a chilling affect," said Colonel Lapan. "It will not be an Iron Curtain. It will not change substantially how people deal with the media."

Lapan says the memo is designed to protect secret information, to ensure that people are fully informed about issues they discuss with reporters and to provide for coordination of what he called major engagements with the media.

The president of the group Military Reporters and Editors, Kelly Kennedy of the Military Times newspapers, says it already is often difficult to get information from the military, particularly in the war zones. And she predicts the Gates memo will make the situation worse.

"You have to kind of explain that you're not the bad guy," said Kelly Kennedy. "So if it's coming down from the top that the media are not necessarily to be trusted, which is what this sound like, then that doesn't help that relationship at all."

Kennedy says she was surprised by the memo, particularly because Secretary Gates said early in his tenure that "the press is not the enemy." She says that in a properly managed department, such central controls should not be necessary.

"You teach your officers how they're supposed to behave with reporters and [you] don't [have to] put [out] the ultimatum on having to go through a controlled center," said Kennedy. "If you're doing it right to begin with, you don't need for there to be a central office that approves all the interviews."

But former defense department official Lawrence Korb, who now is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the Gates memo tightening the rules on military contacts with the media is surprising for a different reason.

"I think it was quite reasonable," said Lawrence Korb. "In fact, I wonder why it took him so long to do that because we've had all kinds of abuses. And I think it's very important to get control of that."

Korb says those abuses include past opinion articles and interviews by the new Afghanistan commander Army General David Petraeus that Korb says appeared to be attempts to influence war policy, which should be the purview of the civilian leadership.

Some reporters have expressed concern that the Pentagon public affairs office will block legitimate interview requests because the topics might be sensitive or the information could portray the military in a negative light.

But analyst Lawrence Korb says reporters can hold the department accountable if it abuses its reclaimed authority in that way.

"If, in fact, they turn down the request, then the reporter can let us know about it, and then the onus would be on the secretary to say why," he said.

The Pentagon spokesman, Col. Lapan says the policy is not meant to slow or reduce reporters' access to defense officials and members of the military. But he acknowledges his office might sometimes recommend against granting interview requests or other access reporters routinely need.

"I think this office can certainly advise commanders and others that planned engagements either may not be in the best interest or with the best timing," he said. "So we would certainly think that knowing in advance that knowing about certain major media engagements that we could inform that process."

Lapan says one purpose of the new approach is to ensure that troops talk to reporters about their missions and their operations, not about policy, strategy or other subjects that might be beyond their expertise.

He and other officials say the new media policy was being developed before the recent publication of an article in Rolling Stone magazine that resulted in General McChrystal's resignation. But Lapan says Pentagon officials too often have been surprised by things that appear in the media, including that article.

The Gates memo was first reported by the New York Times newspaper on Friday - two days after his top public affairs official, Assistant Secretary Douglas Wilson, told reporters he would do everything he could to ensure that troops do not become excessively wary of reporters in the wake of the McChrystal incident. Wilson said interaction with reporters is "more important now than ever." But he indicated that such interaction should be organized, coordinated through his office and focused on operations rather than personalities, which were the focus of the article about McChrystal and his staff. The Gates memo makes that official policy, and Col. Lapan says it will be followed by more detailed guidelines for the troops.

Kelly Kennedy of Military Reporters and Editors says she is concerned that the new procedures will create a backlog and negatively affect access to commanders, policy makers and troops in the field. But her group has decided to monitor the policy for 60 days before requesting any revisions. Leaders of another reporters' group, the Pentagon Press Association, plan to discuss the issue with Assistant Secretary Wilson on Wednesday.