Pentagon Seeks “Coordination” of Media Activities

The Department of Defense last week increased its efforts to require that Department contacts with the media be monitored and approved by DoD public affairs officials.

“I am asking the heads of the Military Services, the Joint Staff and the Combatant Commands to reinforce to all of their employees to work closely and effectively with their public affairs offices to ensure full situational awareness,” wrote Douglas B. Wilson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in a September 2 memorandum (pdf).

The latest Pentagon move follows up on a July 2 memo (pdf) from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who stated that the DoD Office of Public Affairs “is the sole release authority for official DoD information to news media in Washington, and … all media activities must be coordinated through appropriate public affairs channels.  This policy is all too often ignored,” he complained.

“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…,” Secretary Gates wrote.

Both memoranda assert prohibitions on unauthorized disclosures of classified information as well as on unclassified but sensitive or predecisional information.

As a practical matter, the degree of control over DoD contacts with the media sought by the Pentagon may be impossible to achieve.  The Department is too large (with millions of employees), too decentralized (with thousands of locations) and, perhaps, too open (with hundreds of reporters holding building permits at the Pentagon alone) to allow rigorous monitoring or “coordination” of more than a fraction of all external contacts and communications.

And though it may not be convenient for Pentagon officials to say so, almost everyone understands that freedom of the press means something more, and something different, than reproducing authorized government releases.  Unauthorized disclosures — even incomplete or partially inaccurate ones — often serve a valuable public policy function, at least when they do not trespass on legitimate secrets, because they enable reporters and others to develop an independent account of events and to generate a more complete public record.  When the short-term institutional interests of the Pentagon or other U.S. government agencies lead them to overclassify or otherwise impede public access to information, unauthorized and “uncoordinated” disclosures help to fill the void.

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