The U.S. Defense Department has a message for the business trade media: We and our contractors don’t need you.
One day after the Air Force took the bold step of restricting media access in an attempt to plug massive and consistent operational security leaks, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan encouraged Pentagon officials to skip the B2B media middlemen and engage more with industry.
“Industry is often the best source of information concerning market conditions and technological capabilities,” Shanahan wrote in a March 2 memo to top Pentagon brass. “This information is crucial to determining whether and how the industry can support the Department’s mission and goals.”
In March 2017, the Chief of Naval Operations cautioned sailors and top brass to be more careful about what they say in public, underscoring the importance of not divulging sensitive operational and readiness information to the nation’s adversaries. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reinforced this new policy direction in an October memo to the entire department. In the latest move, the Air Force has ordered its public affairs officials to go through operational security training and is planning a new approval process for media interviews that will ensure officials do not openly discuss sensitive readiness and operational security topics.
Of course, reporters and editors working for defense media outlets are appalled by the new policies, arguing that they worry about the lack of transparency at the Defense Department and the public’s inability to know what is being done in its name.
“Security must be balanced against the need to inform the public,” said John Donnelly, the president of the Military Reporters and Editors Association, a group that represents about 300 journalists. “We worry that the definition of the kind of unclassified information that can be withheld is subjective. Given the ambiguity about what’s allowed and the message from the top stressing secrecy, officials who are wary about their careers may err on the side of withholding information. And in a worst case scenario, such guidance could be used to justify keeping out of public view data that may simply be embarrassing to the Air Force but that the U.S. citizenry needs to know.”
The concern about the potential downsides of these new policies is certainly understandable. But in reality, the B2B defense media doesn’t serve the American people. The average citizen doesn’t get their information about the Defense Department, its plans, spending and operations from the defense trade publications. These media outlets serve the defense industry — the advertisers and sponsors of their content who want to capture the attention of weapon system program managers, senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress. So, the reaction by the media industry is really one born of self preservation.
The Defense Department may be hitting the reset button on what it discusses with the media, but this is hardly the first time this has happened (especially during times of war – we are still at war, aren’t we?).
Your humble correspondent’s father was one of 13 survivors of the U.S.S. Sims (DD-409), sunk in action on May 7, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. It wasn’t until June 20, 1942 that my grandmother was informed about my father’s survival. Until that time, all she and the rest of my family had to go on was a few wire reports from Australia written by correspondents who were barred from speaking to the survivors. This was done in the name of operational security and to prevent giving the enemy information about the status of U.S. forces. The official list of survivors would not be declassified until Feb. 5, 1943.
Is this reset really going to lead to the cover-up of information that the public has a need and a right to know? Not if reporters and editors continue to do their jobs. Sure, it’s going to get tougher, but that should have always been the case when it comes to the information I see printed daily in the B2B defense media. The vast majority of the content is a goldmine for foreign defense intelligence analysts and our peer competitors in Russia and China. It should be more difficult to obtain and print details of maintenance challenges involving B-1 bomber training sorties in South Korea. It should be more difficult to obtain and print information about a space operations center, identifying it as a hub of critical data. And it should be more difficult to obtain detailed information about the Air Force’s targeting process.
All of this information can still be requested and viewed by elected representatives tasked with the responsibility of oversight. But if the information really needs to come to the attention of the public, there will always be people of good conscience who are willing to put country before career and good reporters and editors who will find a way to break the story.