New Pentagon Memo: ‘The Department Has Grown Lax in How We Engage With the Media’

By Brian Braiker

Jul 3, 2010 12:11am

ABC News' Luis Martinez reports:

The Pentagon says there is no link between the fallout from Gen. Stanley McChrystal's profile in Rolling Stone and a new memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued Friday that requires top military officials to inform  the Pentagon's main public affairs office before giving interviews to the press.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson told ABC News, "This is absolutely not linked to the Rolling Stone episode. … The secretary has expressed his concern and interests in dealing with the media with full and accurate information for many many weeks."

Wilson said Gates' goal in issuing a memo stressing compliance with existing rules is that officials who are the best informed on specific issues be the ones to talk to the press because he thinks too often some officials pass along concerns without knowing the full picture on certain issues. 

"This is not a muzzle, this not an Iron Curtain and this not a battle line," Wilson said. "It's an attempt to provide full and accurate information by people who know that information."

Gates foreshadowed the memo in comments he made to reporters last week in the wake of McChrystal's ouster as the top military commander in Afghanistan following controversial comments he and his aides made in the Rolling Stone profile. 

"I think that people clearly need to make smart decisions about how they engage, the circumstances in which they engage, what they talk about," Gates had said. "And there is, in my view, a need for greater discipline in this process on our part and a greater understanding that somebody who is giving an interview in Europe may not understand that something they’re saying has an impact in Asia. And so we need to — we need to be a little smarter about how we approach this.  But I would say those are improvements that are needed on our part."

A copy of the memo, which was not released publicly but was obtained by ABC News, said current rules requiring media coordination through the Pentagon's main public affairs office are "all too often, ignored."

The memo requires senior Pentagon and military officials to notify Wilson's office "prior to interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications."

In the memo, Gates said he is "concerned that the Department has grown lax in how we engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures." 

It also restated that the leaking of classified documents "is against the law, cannot be tolerated, and will, when proven, lead to the prosecution of those found to be engaged in such activity." 

The leak of McChrystal's classified assessment of Afghanistan's security situation during the Obama administration's internal debate on a strategy in that conflict no doubt played a role in the need to stress that such leaks are punishable offenses. 

As to the timing of the memo's distribution, Wilson said Gates wanted the memo issued as soon as it could be completed.

– Luis Martinez

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